St. Cloud, MN – Wait, what? Ellen DeGeneres and hockey? Read on and you’ll get my connection.
There’s a lot of talk these days about college hockey attendance. If you go to as many rinks as I do it’s obvious there’s a drop off in “in seat” attendance at most of the venues around the country. However, don’t confuse that with a drop in interest in the sport. According to College Hockey News, average attendance per game this season ranges from 327 on the low end to 11,228 on the high end and average attendance is down. These statistics come from box scores so they may or may not be totally reliable. College hockey remains a niche sport and of those that follow college sports, about 4-5% of those surveyed follow college hockey according to Statistica. As a comparison, close to 40% of those follow college football.
However, sports as a whole are big business with 93 of the 100 most watched telecasts this past fall being sports. The goliath is the National Football League that generated $15 billion in revenues this past season with projections to reach $25 billion by 2027. Aggressively marketing the game after seeing some recent dips in viewership, they’ve turned to digital streaming as another conduit for revenue. Currently they receive $5 billion from TV contracts but are now generating $50 million a year from Amazon for Thursday Night Football.
Hockey on the other hand, has had it struggles with the recent NHL Winter Classic game having it’s lowest viewership in its history despite its second highest attendance ever. But, from a viewership standpoint, it’s been a steady decline since a high water mark of 4.5 million in 2011. On the positive side, viewership in non-traditional markets like Las Vegas, Greenville, SC, Oklahoma City, Richmond and Norfolk, VA is encouraging.
Hockey is now played in every corner of the United States. Just look at the rosters of collegiate hockey teams. College hockey too has dipped it’s foot in non-traditional markets such as Alabama-Huntsville, Arizona State and even Penn State. However, it’s an expensive commitment for public universities and expansion has been slow. But, it’s an untapped market for viewership.
John Buccigross, who has called seven Frozen Four championships for ESPN conceded “We only have so much time to do things and college hockey for many is just down the list.”
In a story by the Rink Live, Mike Snee, College Hockey Inc.’s executive director, commented “When you look, in general, across all sports, it’s something that everyone is dealing with. I’m no expert on this, but is this a generational thing? Is the experience at home finally reached that point of, ‘Why go when I can get it better at home?’ Has the cost of taking in (live sports) reached a point where enough people have said, I can’t do that. Why is this occurring everywhere? Attendance may be plateauing in certain places or going down in certain places, but the overall following of it might not be down. Here’s a great example: A couple weeks ago, I watched two St. Cloud State games out of my living room (in the Twin Cities). I wasn’t able to do that 10 years ago.”
The NFL Model
In September of 2019, the NFL hired the former Chief Marketing Officer of Activision Blizzard, Inc, Tim Ellis as it’s new CMO. The strategy is obvious. Activision Blizzard, Inc is the video game holding company for video games Guitar Hero and Call of Duty. It’s a direct assault on the millenial market (age 18-35).
Ellis told Maria Bartiroma on Fox Business News Wall Street “We look at engagement rates and to what degree the demographics of the fans we bring in. As the population in the United States ages we need to bring in the younger generations to future proof the NFL.” Further he stated, “There’s a sense of urgency about connecting to an even broader group, particularly youth. If you don’t make someone a fan by the time they are 16 or 17 you’re in trouble. What’s important is how to reach and engage with them and connecting with their own passion points. Their passion points are music, gaming and fashion and using them as a connective tissue.”
The New Era of Streaming Hockey
Quality digital engagement is here and plays out quite well for the college hockey fan. Maybe too well at the expense of “in seat” attendance. For this weekend alone, between FloHockey.tv and NCHC.tv one can watch close to 40 games on a personal computer or smart device. And, the quality keeps getting better.
HockeyTV dubs itself as the “World’s biggest platform of live and on-demand broadcasts of hockey with the ability to watch a game anytime on your TV, computer, tablet or phone.” They stream hundred’s of games every week from all over the USA and Canada. It’s a great vehicle to get the game to non-traditional markets but it has to be monetized properly so the schools who are seeing a dip in attendance are recouping this revenue through these streaming services in terms of subscription fees and ad revenue.
After an injection of venture capital, FloSports, the owner of about 25 web video channels including FloHockey.tv has been on a rapid trajectory adding close to 30,000 subscribers a month according to an article in Inc. At an average subscription of $150, their revenues are ballooning and they’ve been an innovator in streaming niche sports like college hockey.”Since our first live stream in 2006, we have been obsessed with the drive to give underserved sports the love they deserve,” Mark Floreani, CEO and Co-Founder told Inc. Recently, they’ve re-branded, with a new logo, tagline and visual identity to unify their brand of it’s 20+ sites. Currently, they have digital sites for the BIG 10, Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA. After years of struggling, they’ve learned how to monetize this product.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference has its own streaming channel as well at NCHC.tv with various subscription price points and $112 per year for All-School access. Their model includes profit sharing with member schools allocated by the school’s subscriber base. Not surprisingly, the University of North Dakota with a large and avid subscriber base is benefiting the most.
Although the NCHC does not release detailed NCHC.tv numbers, they did tell me ” subscribers continue to increase and we continue to distribute 85 percent of all revenue from the platform back to member schools based on the subscriber school affiliation when they subscribe.” The remaining 15 percent is retained by the NCHC. Based on previous published data on revenue a good estimate of streaming revenues per year is as follows: 2014-15: $194,000; 2015-16 250,000; 2016-17 $290,000 ; 2017-18 $554,000; 2018-19 slight increase from 2017-18.
The DeGeneres Effect
That brings us to Ellen DeGeneres, the executive producer of NBC’s “Game of Games”. This wildly successful show now in it’s third season has been a rating success for the 18-49 year old audience capitalizing on the viewers appetite for “music, gaming and fashion” with bright, colorful lighting, music, costumes, games and stunts. HitPoint Studios, a software and game developer was hired to develop the Ellen DeGeneres “Game of Game” App. The App has brought more than 1.1 million viewers into the experience to play trivia games against the game shows “real” players to win prizes. To date, more than 22 million matches have been played earning $120,000 for the participants. The point is, the creators of the show have thought out of the box combining a talk show with a reality show and are the first to utilize “augmented reality” for a “play-along” challenge.” Ariella Lehrer, President of HitPoint Studios was quoted “It’s used to create a more engaging experience that helps build viewer loyalty for the TV show.”
The New Normal
The days of expecting a sports fan to show up at a venue, park themselves in a seat and not be entertained and engaged are over. Those that capitalize on technology, engagement on mobile devices, music and entertainment will be the most successful in improving their attendance and improving their fan loyalty. Imaginative choices in concessions, and yes, serving beer (as hundreds of previously reluctant college football programs have begun to do) and developing a more robust sensory experience for the fan will maximize the revenue per square footage of their facility.
I would suggest the new normal in collegiate ice hockey facilities is less seating capacity such as Robson Arena, the new $50 million facility built on the campus of Colorado College and expected to be open by next hockey season. Their web site indicates “The arena will be unique in size and scope, easy to manage and maintain, and optimized for high-level athletic competition due to its comprehensive sports-medicine facility, in-house TV production capability, flexible floor space, and experienced staff. It will accommodate seating for approximately 3,000 – 3,650 attendees (about half the seating capacity of their current home – Broadmoor World Arena). The facility will have the capability to host ice-based and multiple other sports.”
Streaming should not be looked at as a competitor to in seat attendance. Streaming is here and it’s here to stay. It should be viewed as an asset to maximize the reach of college hockey to a different demographic and to untapped non-traditional markets and to utilize it as another way for budget strapped schools to add revenue.
The connection to Ellen DeGeneres? She’s been able to engage and entertain in ways not done previously. It’s been a brilliant marketing move on their part. It’s an entertainment model college hockey and other collegiate sports need to examine as we move into a new decade. After all, the fan is there to be entertained.