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Lighting the Lamp on Loyalty: How the NHL Can Win Back Fans

Lighting the Lamp on Loyalty

How the NHL Can Win Back Fans


Fans of hockey may warmly welcome players as they return to the ice after a 113-day strike, but for the leaders of the National Hockey League, winning fan loyalty again may require something akin to a hat trick.

That won’t necessarily be easy. The loyalty that exists for a sport does not typically extend to the league. Diehard fans follow and root for the players and teams – there are in fact few other entities to which a fan may be more loyal. League Commissioner Gary Bettman, meanwhile, has presided over three lockouts since he took the post in 1993, an association that may inexorably link him to less sportsmanlike elements of the game, such as salaries, perks and contracts.

Indeed, winning loyalty will take more than a few tricks of any kind. The NHL would be well advised to implement the proven techniques to win over some of that loyalty that fans reserve for the game, not the league. Here are my four suggestions on how to build engagement when loyalty may be wavering:

Don’t ice out the fans – communicate: The NHL knows that its roughly 20 million avid fans are tech-savvy – the game already reaches them across several digital channels. Next, the NHL should tailor its messaging across these channels using language that will recognize fans in a straightforward way. Bettman took a good first step when he apologized to the players and fans, saying the NHL “has a responsibility to win back your trust and support, whether you watch one game or every game.” The outreach should not stop there. The league should regularly update fans on special events and promotions (created to win their trust and support), and inform ticket holders of what to expect in the abbreviated 48-game season.

Treat season ticket holders like VIPs: While the NHL doesn’t have a loyalty program through which to collect data, it is able to gather information about its season ticket holders. It knows, for instance, that more than half of its fans live outside the city of their favorite team, meaning that the characteristics that unite them as a culture are not necessarily geographical. It must use this information to ensure that these most dedicated fans remain loyal. The Tampa Bay Lightning, for instance, is offering 200 season tickets for $200, while the Pittsburgh Penguins are giving free select concessions at the team’s first four home games. But these are team promotions, and are not NHL-wide. There was some talk that NHL would offer its “Center Ice” cable package for free, this turned out not to be the case.

Save face with some show time: The first game back should be a celebration of the season, and a thank-you to the fans who attend or watch. A surprise live-entertainment act between periods – one that aligns with fan preferences – could create the same type of hype as a playoff game. A special concession-stand deal, such as shorter lines or lower pricing for ticket holders, would make loyal fans feel recognized. Such offers could also attract or win sponsors that may be wavering on their commitments.

Improve goodwill by doing good – and meaning it: The team’s front office and players have an opportunity give back in a genuine way to the fans who support them. For example, the NHL can add more resources and promotion to existing charitable efforts or start new initiatives, and possibly foundations. It’s important that these be long-term efforts to which the league is committed, and not a marketing ploy. Fans would see through that and send the NHL right into the penalty box.

NHL lockouts have tried the loyalty of NHL fans three times. Let’s hope there is not a fourth. In the meantime, the league should do all it can to limit the real tricks to the ice.


Bryan Pearson is a COLLOQUY Contributing Editor, president and CEO of LoyaltyOne and author of The Loyalty Leap: Turning Customer Information Into Customer Intimacy. Follow Bryan’s blog at
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