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Tribalism and the NHL

Fans of the Philadelphia Flyers cheer their team on against the Washington Capitals. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Fans of the Philadelphia Flyers cheer their team on against the Washington Capitals. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
– Tyrion Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire And Ice series

“Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing, the team could move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it.”
– Jerry Seinfeld


No fragrance, opiate or trophy has the allure and power that identity does. We define ourselves through any number of things – status, age, gender, nationality, taste in art – and we usually associate with people of similar backgrounds and/or interests because of the sameness that’s there. Most of us enjoy feeling as if we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.

However, in the current age of ever-changing technologies and catering to our every need and whim, it’s increasingly difficult to locate and participate in that type of collective experience. People record entire seasons of TV shows and binge-watch them all alone at their convenience. Online shopping, iTunes and satellite radio isolate us in a bubble of our own preferences. We don’t have to make eye contact when we argue or debate on Internet message boards. We’ve become so specialized, shrink-wrapped and individually targeted as a society, the whole no longer is greater than the sum of its parts.

That explains why professional sports are so naturally adept at lodging themselves in the deepest parts of our collective consciousness. When you become a fan of a team, you get your own colors, uniforms and history of the franchise. You give the benefit of the doubt to your side and the other side just gets the doubt. You usually accept there are some rivals who you have to hate more than others, even when there aren’t a lot of logical reasons why you ought to. But by identifying as a member of a particular fan base, you separate yourself from the larger pack.

That’s tribalism – Us vs. Them – plain and simple. We’re the good guys because we’re Us and they’re the bad guys because they’re Them. And though it’s always been a big part of the inherent appeal of professional sports, the tribalism we now see in the NHL today is considerably different than it was a decade or two ago.

Thanks to tools such as social media and mass-attendance marquee events, the NHL’s modern-day tribalism isn’t only about brand awareness and loyalty. It’s about near-constant, active engagement with the consumer. It’s about building an umbrella, getting as many people under it as you can and when it’s not raining, using it to entertain those people with a vintage Gene Kelly dance routine. And it’s something the NHL has to do in the larger battle to get disposable incomes disposed in their coffers.

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There’s ample evidence tribalism is thriving like never before in the NHL. In Chicago – where fans once stayed away from the arena in droves – the Blackhawks just had their sixth annual, wildly successful fan convention. In Toronto, the Maple Leafs sell out the Air Canada Centre as they always have, but now they’re also luring thousands of other fans to the adjoining Maple Leaf Square to watch a game on a giant outdoor screen. In Vancouver, Mike Gillis and John Tortorella – who are to dourness as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were to illicit substances in the 1970s – recently held a town hall of sorts with Canucks fans. In Ottawa and more recently in Nashville, there have been concerted efforts by Sens and Preds ownership to limit the number of rival fans (Leafs and Habs fans in Ottawa and Blackhawks fans in Tennessee) who show up at home games and water down the tribal experience. And the NHL’s newfound love affair with outdoor games (and the visceral, physical feeling of being out in the elements watching the sport) is getting to feverish levels, with six games scheduled for this coming season.

So if it feels like the tribe is getting bigger and being part of a tribe is more engaging, enveloping and demanding than ever before, that’s because it is. “The game is growing everywhere,” says Maple Leafs left winger James van Riemsdyk. “When I was playing in Philly, you could see the interest rise every year. Obviously hockey was already huge in Toronto, but you see the people in Maple Leaf Square and you realize it’s another level now. It’s awesome.”

Added Boston Bruins left winger Brad Marchand: “It feels like it’s getting more popular every year. People love to support their teams and it seems like they get more passionate every day. It’s great as a player to have fans appreciate what you do and we want more.”

In effect, the tribalism that begins as a natural phenomenon is being stoked and cultivated by NHL teams to acquire and retain fans and corporate partners. And make no mistake, there is a massive, ongoing fight to do so – not just in the sports world, but also in the larger sphere of the entertainment business. But again, it isn’t the traditional marketing of sports we’re talking about here. Corporations no longer are satisfied simply putting their names out in the marketplace. They want a long-term emotional connection with consumers. They’re putting their sponsorship monies into organizations and events offering fans experiences that engage them to their core.  

Norman O’Reilly, University of Ottawa associate professor of sport management, refers to the shift in corporate marketing as the festivalization of sponsorship. “Corporations believe people are looking for experiences, not just viewing opportunities,” he says. “There are a lot of other competing activities out there in that regard. Professional hockey teams are competing with many other events for a share of our minds.”

O’Reilly points to music festivals, which now dominate the highly competitive concert touring industry, as an example of sponsors turning to festivals to maximize the reach and hold of their marketing investments. Indeed, whether it’s the Chicago-based Lollapalooza (the most famous music festival in recent memory) or more recent up-and-coming destination events such as the Burning Man festival in Nevada, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival in Tennessee, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival in California or Montreal’s Osheaga festival, the idea of bringing people together in huge numbers over multiple days is only gaining in popularity. That’s not so easy to do with hockey games.

As well, there’s an even more recent phenomenon drawing thousands of people to events across North America and Europe: so-called “adventure races” that put everyday people through challenging, military-style obstacle courses. Essentially it’s about the experience people see in a show such as the wildly successful The Amazing Race series and replicating it for the grassroots. That’s definitely not so easy to do in hockey.

In short, consumers have incredible choices on which things to spend their entertainment dollars and are craving more active participation than the type of passive viewing that takes place at sports events. No wonder longtime hockey sponsors are demanding as much increased engagement at hockey events as possible. Kraft’s annual “Hockeyville” promotion requires entire communities to come together in hope of getting a local arena refurbished. Scotiabank funds a slew of initiatives, including Hockey Day In Canada and community sponsorship programs for youth hockey. The Canadian Tire retail chain hired Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews to be the face of their fledgling hockey school program. In all of these instances, the support is coming from companies intent on effecting a deep and lasting impression on consumers and attaching their brand to it. And you see it across the pro sports spectrum. “If you look at the premier North American sporting event – the Super Bowl – the focus isn’t on the game,” O’Reilly said. “It’s about the connected experiences. So sponsors are getting more traction at, say, the Toronto Film Festival or The Ottawa Blues Fest or the Calgary Stampede than they are at a Habs or a Leafs game.”

O’Reilly’s team of researchers has been working with the Ottawa Senators to study the sociology of sports fans in relation to teams and have broken down any single city population into five categories of people. The first group is non-sports fans uninterested in any chance to watch athletes perform. The second group is referred to as loyalists: hard-core fans who will always be ardent supporters. The next category is labelled “the star-struck”: fans of one athlete who might attend a game or two if said athlete were there. Another is “sports fantatics” who attend sporting events of all types even if their favorite teams aren’t playing. And the final category is what O’Reilly called “socialists”: people who see the game as a social opportunity and would go if tickets became available at their workplace.

Sports teams understand they can’t crack the first group, so attention shifts to the other four subcultures to woo people into the tribe. Although the NHL declined THN’s request for an interview for this story, it’s easy to see what the league’s strategy in reaching those people entails. In addition to the aforementioned marquee events, its marketers and corporate partners attempt to ingratiate themselves into Canadian consumers’ hearts partially, perhaps even largely, through nationalism.

And really, it’s difficult to blame them. When we talk about identity and the tribe, a national label is arguably the easiest touchtone to exploit. Many companies in Canada have been doing it for decades. But when multinational corporate giants like Gatorade – which once marketed to an international crowd by promoting only megastar American athletes – start sponsoring Sidney Crosby, Gordie Howe and Cassie Campbell as they have in recent years, it’s clear the connection between hockey and advertising in Canada has never been stronger and will likely continue to be milked and mined for as long as the game is played.  

Because the nationalism angle can’t be leaned on as heavily in the United States, NHL teams in those markets base their tribe-growing efforts on their past history (as the Hawks have wisely done after years of neglect) or use personality and humor to draw people’s interest. For example, the Columbus Blue Jackets don’t have much of a winning history, but their Twitter account recently engaged in humorous exchanges with the account of the Los Angeles Kings. Over the course of a few weeks, one side would take a playful shot at the other and vice versa, creating a highly entertaining environment for fans of both teams and the league in general. It’s added value for consumers always looking for something new.

Without a solid on-ice product, none of this matters. But like it or not, the game isn’t enough to grab and hold onto the attention spans of as many people as NHL officials, advertisers and sponsors wish to reach. You have to make them leave the building talking about more than just the final score.

Identity is a construct of our own choosing. As Seinfeld noted, you may be cheering for laundry, but professional sports are now in the business of persuading you that they are you and you are them. They want you in the tribe, because your membership is what they have to sell to their business partners. It’s the only way they can hope to keep pace in the larger game of putting bucks in their nets. “As long as professional sports keep offering the entertainment and experiential value people are seeking, they should be able to maintain their market share,” O’Reilly says. “But revenue streams are changing and ticket sales are becoming less important. You run a significant risk of losing fans if you’re not doing other things, because different entities are always trying to steal them away.”

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This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2013 edition of THN magazine.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.

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