I am generally less critical of Gary Bettman than most because I subscribed (perhaps foolishly) to an ends justifies the means approach to the lockout and causes thereof. I never really understood the NHLPA's strategy (nor, I think, did they) and in the absence of any counter argument, the League seemed to present a glaringly obvious case and resolution. But, if I'm guilty of this, it's only because I felt the sooner we saw corrections of NHL market structure issues, the sooner the game could be refashioned as an exciting and quasi-profitable venture. Not unlike a stock in a freefall, we needed all the bad news baked in and publicly digested in order for speculators to start paying attention again. In this case, the embodiment of "bad news" was the lockout and subsequent negotiations. However, now that regular season hockey is two weeks away I'm uneasy at the League's ability to gain positive ground.
Two things struck me after seeing the ad. First, the people running the NHL don't like or understand hockey. Worse, nothing in the new campaign suggests it has anything to do with hockey – the actual product.
"We wanted to get deep inside the soul of the game to reach the rabid fan who is starved for hockey and the casual fan who might have overlooked it," Thomas C. Cotton, president of Conductor, told the New York Times."
I don’t see how either of those groups is served by the campaign. It’s confusing and frankly a bit camp. The "hot babe" wish fulfillment thing is the most laughable aspect. The National Council of Women's Organizations has leveled complaints that the ads are offensive to women. A point I’ll concede. You leave yourself open to such criticism when ads deal with women “serving” men. It’s really no different than every MTV video/beer commercial only of less educational value. I’m not in advertising but shouldn’t there be at least some link between the ad and product? I don’t see what the casual fan gleans from this except that hockey players need scantily-clad women to dress them in romantic candle-lit locker rooms.
Second, the campaign seems at odds with the concept of a "New NHL", a concept the “rabid fan” might pick up on. The new NHL seems to operate at cross-purposes with its intent, a latter day take “on the folly of rewarding A, but hoping for B”:
…numerous examples exist of reward systems that are fouled up in that the types of behavior rewarded are those which the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior desired is not being rewarded at all.The League wants to create offense, yet it creates parity. The League wants to showcase skill players, yet it enacts new rules making it easier to defend offense with a modified trap. Parity has to hurt teams that try to open up the game and help teams that try to shut it down. It is the concentration of talent that creates more offense. New rules aren't going to provide significantly more time and space on the ice and that's what creative players need. In the end, it doesn't matter what the League wants, what matters is the behavior that will be rewarded. So, I thought it odd the campaign would focus on the player and deemphasize the team aspects of the sport. In keeping with the spirit of the CBA, shouldn’t any attempt at selling the NHL focus on the more communal aspects of “team” and “league” over “player”. Wasn’t that the lesson learned? Otherwise, why did we lose a year?
Needless to say, the NHL has not done a great job of marketing in the last 10 years. The NHL barely registers with the casual fan in the US. So, while the success of the ads is dubious, it really doesn’t matter what they look like. What matters is that they get seen. Awkward as they are, the League is trying to raise awareness and in that respect anything is better than nothing.