Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Who Are the NHL Fans?

Unlike other professional sports, such as the NFL or Major League Baseball, the NHL does not enjoy the luxury of a large television contract to augment revenues. As Dirk Hoag pointed out in his June 29th post of On the Forecheck, the NFL has an annual television contract worth approximately $4 Billion while Major League Baseball has an annual contract worth $900 million. By contrast, the NHL has an annual television contract worth approximately $72.5 million. The NHL derives the majority of its revenue from fans that come through the turnstiles in the 30 arenas around the League. So who are those fans, from the casual to the season ticket holder? Experian Consumer Research did market research on fans of the NHL, and the findings are interesting and paint a positive picture of the fan base.

Experian looked at several variables regarding fans of the NHL, and compared those with fans of the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and Major League Soccer. The first was age, and as you can see by the chart, with the exception of MLS, the NHL has the youngest fan base.

This can be attributable to several factors- the often maligned expansion of the NHL into "non-traditional markets" has to account for some of this growth as new fans are introduced to the game; the growth and popularity of youth leagues in markets where there is a franchise; and the entertaining and dynamic environment of a live game, to name a few. A younger fan base bodes well for the League and its franchises as the arena experience is energetic and attuned to their tastes as well as providing the opportunity for each local franchise to develop deep rooted loyalties.
A solid attribute of NHL fans is that compared to the other professional sports surveyed, they have a higher mean household income than fans of all other professional sports. There is concern that the NHL may be pricing itself out of the reach of some fans, and I suspect that is true in some instances. The price of tickets to an NHL game is a constantly discussed matter, both at the League level and with the specific franchises, and that is a discussion for another time. What is important to measure is the ability of the average NHL fan to afford a game ticket and the related costs. Interestingly, according to Team Marketing Report, the League average for tickets last year was up 5.1% to 49.66 (the Predators average ticket price is $47.22). In comparison, the average ticket price for the NFL was up 7.9% in 2008, to $72.20. The Fan Cost Index (FCI), which includes 4 average priced tickets, 2 beers, 4 soft drinks, 4 hot dogs, parking, 2 programs, and 2 caps/hats (?) for the NHL is $288.23. The Predators FCI is $273.38. The FCI for the NFL is $396.36. The average NHL fan has the means to support their favorite team provided they perceive they are receiving fair value for their dollars spent. It is imperative that each team make their fans believe their dollars were well spent- from the on ice product to the arena experience.

Fans that follow hockey know that news about the game is being disseminated differently that perhaps any other major sport. Most dailies have cut back on their coverage of hockey and now no longer send reporters on the road or have a dedicated writer for that sport. Hockey fans have learned to get their news from blogs and web sites, many of which now break major stories and provide the in-depth coverage that many newspapers do not. Look to the right of this post and you will see a list of some of the best hockey bloggers around. Buddy Oakes of Preds on the Glass provided the only local coverage of the NHL Awards where the Predators Steve Sullivan won the first post season award in the history of the franchise. Those that followed the draft were kept up to date by live coverage from attendees using Twitter, and they delivered some great insight into the draft process as well as the events in Montreal this past week. With the rise of the "new media", hockey fans have embraced technology and in turn have used that technology to further the coverage of the game.

The NHL has been at the fore in embracing the "new media" concept and is a very tech savvy League. This plays well with the fan base as they are a younger group that is very comfortable with technology. By taking advantage of these trends, the League and the local teams will further entrench themselves as "first in mind" when it comes to sports and the expenditure of entertainment/sports dollars.
Whether it is a local team or the the League, it is critical to know your fans and tailor the product accordingly. This snapshot of the fan base of the NHL is, I believe, positive for the League and its future. A comparatively younger fan base with high income and comfortable with technology means there are great marketing opportunities for the game, opportunities that have the potential to draw in new fans and build a solid fan base for years to come.

*click on the charts to see a larger image

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