Building Through The Fans

Hockey Executives Discuss Growing the Sport of Hockey Throughout North America

Owner, president and CEO of the Montreal Canadiens Geoff Molson and CEO of the Anaheim Ducks Michael Schulman spoke at the John Molson Sports Marketing conference, moderated by TSN reporter John Lu on Friday, Nov. 6. Courtesy Toshimi Jan Muñiz
Owner, president and CEO of the Montreal Canadiens Geoff Molson and CEO of the Anaheim Ducks Michael Schulman spoke at the John Molson Sports Marketing conference, moderated by TSN reporter John Lu on Friday, Nov. 6. Courtesy Toshimi Jan Muñiz

It may come as a surprise to Canadians, but hockey is not a self-sustaining sport in North America. Nurturing and supporting the growth of hockey requires lots of work from the National Hockey League and its historical franchises.

During a panel discussion titled “Blueprint for Franchise Success,” that took place at the John Molson Sports Marketing Conference last week, various hockey executives spoke about the difficulties of growing the sport in Canada and in the United States.

In Canada, hockey is part of the culture, but it is an expensive sport to play. Outreach in Canada is essential in garnering interest.

“The future of our sport always starts with the young generation,” said Geoff Molson, CEO, president and owner of the Montreal Canadiens. “Especially with those who don’t have the means to be a part of the sport. It’s very easy to get a soccer ball and some shoes. It’s a lot harder to get hockey equipment and a lot more expensive to play on a hockey team.”

Expressing a need to grow the sport in Quebec might seem like a ridiculous idea because of how popular hockey is on the provincial and national scale. The Montreal Canadiens rank second in game attendance for the 2015-2016 season; they are second only to the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won three of the last six Stanley Cups.

But since the Molson family bought the Canadiens back in 2009, John Lu, who covers the Canadiens regularly for TSN, has seen a change in the culture surrounding the team. With Canada becoming increasingly ethnically diverse, there’s potential for hockey growth.

“The face of hockey is changing as the demographics of Canada change. We see more people of colour within the game, more women playing,” Lu said. “[The Molson’s] were tremendous stewards [of the sport] in their initial ownership, and Geoff is just carrying that on again with his brothers.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs have not seen any real success in a while, and despite being ranked number 37 in top sports franchises around the world according to Forbes, need to find new ways to sustain and grow their fan base.

“We give [fans] subscriber gifts, we give them meet and greets where they meet players, where they meet coaches,” said CFO and Executive VP of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, Ian Clarke. “Different things that make [fans] feel part of a community. That’s what people go to arenas for.”

Increasing the value of going to see a team like the Maple Leafs, through promos and “insider” perks is a way to keep that community strong and engaged.

“Arenas by definition, if you look at the dictionary, are a gathering place and for people who are subscribers want to get together, they want to rub shoulders with somebody. They want to have a common cause,” Clarke continued.

In the United States, it’s a lot harder to grow the game, as NHL franchises have to compete with the most popular sport in North America: football. Competing for viewers is a problem the Dallas Stars face, being in market with the Dallas Cowboys.

“Football in general is huge is Texas,” said Jason Farris, the Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer of the Dallas Stars. “We have a great sport that’s high speed, high skill and physical, so it does relate well in Dallas.”

In an effort to get more fans to the arena to watch the team and buy merchandise, the Stars have used their own hockey stars, pun not intended, to market the team.

“We’re always storytelling in our business and the path to our team is different for all of these players. We got a couple of players that are really charismatic and we’ve got a pretty fun broadcast team that can tease that out of them,” Farris said. “Our players are accessible. So fans that want to see our players up close get that opportunity.”

During the panel the CEO of the Anaheim Ducks, Michael Schulman, said that the growth of hockey will spread out west and outside of Canada.

When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, it caught the team’s upper management by surprise, and they were unable to take advantage of the buzz surrounding the team.

“You can’t just turn people around to hockey with ice rinks, if you don’t have ice rinks,” Schulman said during the panel.

He admitted that growth has been slow in California and that the Ducks do not fill their arena to capacity on a nightly basis, compared to franchises like the Canadiens.

“There is hope for hockey because the NHL salary cap, which gives teams a limit on how much money they can spend on players, allows almost all teams to be on a level playing field, creating true parity in the league that helps smaller market teams grow,” Schulman said.

With the league parity, which spreads out talented players across NHL teams, any team can win. You can be on a losing streak and still have a chance at winning the next game, Molson pointed out during the panel. Even smaller market teams can be successful, gaining fans and growing the sport, which ultimately is the end goal for the NHL and its franchises.

For full interviews with Geoff Molson, Michael Schulman, John Lu, Jason Farris and Ian Clarke, tune in to Episode 38 of the Pressbox Hat Trick Podcast here and Soundcloud.

In an earlier edition of this article, it was written that the Molson family purchased the Canadiens in 2006. The Molson family actually purchased the Canadiens in 2009. The Link regrets the error.