Canada calling: hockey, All-Stars and sponsorship innovations

Nielsen Sports Basketball

Aside from the usual National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and Canadian Football League (CFL) staples, three events standout on Yoeri Geerits’ sports calendar in 2016. Geerits is Vice President of Repucom Canada and while August’s Olympic Games are inevitably circled in his diary, so too are a couple of events which will take place on Canadian soil over the next 12 months.

“This is going to be a very interesting year,” he says, speaking at the beginning of February.

“Canada has always been a very proud participant in the Olympics and I think there’ll be a lot of interest there, particularly as this year it’s a summer Games, and is in the same time zone.”

But this weekend’s NBA All-Star game in Toronto and September’s World Cup of Hockey have also caught Geerits’ eye. The former is taking place outside the United States for the first time while the latter is being resurrected in 2016 after two previous versions were staged in 1996 and 2004.

The All-Star experience

Yoeri Geerits | Repucom

Yoeri Geerits, Senior Vice President of Repucom Canada

“The NBA All-Star game is the first big event of the year,” Geerits notes, “and I’m really keen to see the event do well.” Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, home of the Raptors, the country’s only NBA team, will stage the game on 14th February and Geerits hopes it will generate new momentum for the sport across Canada.

“When you look at the fan sizing of the NBA and of the Raptors, they have a very solid fan base,” he says. “The majority of that fan base is still in Ontario – although the Raptors are the only NBA team in Canada. In the west, hockey is currently so dominant. It’ll be interesting to see what the NBA All-Star Game does to spread the love for the NBA in Canada and basketball nationwide.”

All the ingredients for success appear to be in place.

“The Raptors are doing fantastically, it’s Kobe [Bryant]’s last season, they’re bringing in some big artists – Drake and Kevin Hart to coach the teams in the celebrity game.

“The NBA is doing a great job at putting a lot of effort into building a younger demographic and adding a solid component of entertainment – athletes, celebrities. They do it really well and consistently well.”

Hockey – the NHL and the World Cup of Hockey

Canada is a land of hockey.  There are seven National Hockey League (NHL) teams in the country and, this year, a major new international event. The NHL is relaunching the World Cup of Hockey, with the first revised edition to be played in Toronto in September. Eight teams are due to compete: Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, USA, a pan-European team and a team of young North Americans in a competition that will be separate from the existing IIHF World Championships, which will take place in Russia this May.

“It’s going to be very interesting for a number of reasons,” Geerits says. “It’s hockey, it’s Canada, it’s the NHL and it’s a World Cup. There’s a lot of competition for sponsorship dollars but what I’m hearing is that the existing sponsors of the NHL, the Canadian brands, are also keen to partner with the World Cup.

“I think everybody is going to get very excited about it, especially once the Olympics is over – it’s a busy year from that point of view, so I think the NHL will have to be tactical in marketing the event. But knowing hockey and knowing Canada, there’s not going to be a lack of interest in the event. I’m interested to see what they do differently as a league to promote the event to a younger demographic, to make it more exciting and entertainment-driven.”

Such is hockey’s popularity in Canada – 77% follow the NHL there – the sponsorship market around the sport is inevitably crowded. Geerits says he thinks brands have to become “more innovative” when it comes to activation, but adds that some brands “are doing it really well”. He points in particular to grassroots programmes run by the likes of restaurant chain Tim Hortons and Scotiabank.

“The brands that are doing well have put a lot of effort against it, have strong activation teams and have a strong understanding what works and what doesn’t.”

2016: a year of sponsorship innovation

“One of the most interesting components from a sponsorship a technology point of view,” Geerits suggests, “is that the World Cup of Hockey is implementing ‘erase and replace’ technology, so the rink boards will be visible as they are in-venue but in broadcasts they will be replaced by this technology; there will be a number of different broadcast feeds for different markets, allowing different advertising by market.”

Elsewhere, the All-Star Game will see the NBA trial jersey sponsorships and Geerits believes both innovations could be very significant.

“Jersey sponsorship has been a no-no in the traditional North American major leagues and ‘erase and replace’ technology has not yet been implemented in North America,” he points out, “so I think it could change the landscape from a sponsorship asset and broadcast point of view.”

CFL and cycling: ones to watch

Casting his eye across the Canadian sports market more generally, Geerits points to the first Vancouver edition of the HSBC Sevens World Series rugby tournament in March as a potential highlight. And he also spies an opportunity for the Canadian Football League, even in a hockey-dominated market.

“It’s the biggest thing after hockey,” he points out. “From a fan sizing point of view 61 per cent of Canadians follow Canadian football compared to 77 per cent who follow the NHL, but the challenge for the CFL is there are only nine teams and only 18 games a season. Broadcasters have put a lot of effort and energy into the production of hockey, which relates to Rogers investing CAN$5.7 billion in the rights to hockey – there’s a lot of innovation, but there’s probably less attention going to the CFL.

“The CFL has one of the biggest opportunities in Canada in terms of sponsorship development because of the clutter you have in hockey. Everybody goes to the NHL because the viewership is great: the CFL has, per game, a bigger viewership than the average NHL game, but they don’t have as many games. I think there’s a massive opportunity to monetise that and to increase that reach, building on that great fan base and viewership. They are in a fantastic position.”

Beyond the big four of hockey, basketball, baseball and Canadian football, Geerits believes a sport like cycling could be poised for a commercial boost. “Cycling is booming,” he says, “but the biggest challenge has been the fragmentation in the industry. I know the guys at Cycling Canada and they are starting to integrate more with mass participation events and there are two UCI World Tour events this year, one in Quebec and one in Montreal.

“There’s a big opportunity I think for a brand or a couple of big brands to put their heads together with event organisers and federation to really build a bigger platform. The participation is there and the interest is there; it’s just a matter of finding a way to defragment that landscape. Brands are looking at cycling, at mass participation events, as a great way of connecting with fans directly versus just doing in-broadcast advertising or sponsorship. From what I see and hear – and the stats show it as well – there’s definitely an opportunity there.”