The NHL returned to play on August 1, the first meaningful games since March 11.
The restart of play across major league sports will bring with it many new opportunities, leading to changes in the way consumers watch games and marketers build activation plans with not just the NHL, but major pro leagues across North America.
For decades, North American hockey players, fans, broadcasters and leagues have been engrained with the notion that their regular season, especially the NHL’s, kicks off in October and runs until April, followed by the playoffs until June. With the projected completion of the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoffs now likely in October 2020, the NHL is headed towards starting the 2020-21 season in December or January. This would delay the completion of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs by as much as two to three months to late July or August. 
A cultural and economic shift in the way hockey is consumed could be born out of this move.
No longer playing games in October and November has two major implications for the NHL. The NHL will have two fewer months to compete in primetime against the NFL regular season, MLB playoffs, and major network TV series that follow a typical September to May air schedule. Instead, the league will have two more summer months to compete mainly against the MLS regular season and MLB regular season for ratings, which have typically been known to produce lower viewership than the combined fall programming mentioned above.
The NHL is not the only league whose season shift will change consumption trends in the near term.
The current expectation is that the next NBA season will likely start in early December in order to wrap up the NBA Finals by their typical June end date and allow for NBA player participation in the Olympics in 2021, set to begin on July 23. Any sustained shift in NBA season end dates would become complicated by NBA player participation in the Olympic Games every four years—along with other significant global or continental competitions such as the FIBA Basketball World Cup or EuroBasket in non-Olympic years.
If strong sustained ratings are observed this summer, the stage will be set for the NHL and its teams to capitalize on never-before-seen opportunities for their business, sponsors, and fans.
The salary cap for the 2020-21 season was announced on July 10 to be flat, when a new NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified due to the revenue loss associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. A material increase in ratings will lead to the next U.S. TV rights deal, expiring after the 2021-22 season and already projected to be lucrative by media outlets, to beat current fee projections by an impactful amount. A shift such as this will increase the total revenue sharing pool between players and the league and therefore will increase the expected salary cap for player’s salaries.
For fans and sponsors, incremental activation opportunities will begin to change the way in which games and telecasts are consumed for the better.
An NHL regular season that now ends in June will provide cold-weather markets, where fandom for the NHL is at its highest (i.e. Canadian and Northern U.S. cities), with incremental months of outdoor social and community-focused activations. Typically, these opportunities have only been realized in the latter rounds of the playoffs due to cooler weather.
Semi-permanent outdoor fan fests and viewing parties outside arenas, in public squares or green spaces (in cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, Minneapolis, Boston, Detroit and Calgary) will likely become commonplace. Reason being, they will become easier to rationalize from an infrastructure investment standpoint if the cost can be amortized over the last 4-6 weeks of the weather-friendly regular season leading into a potential multi-month playoff run. Cost savings on a per gameday basis also means teams will have a greater budget for additional entertainment such as live music during intermissions and DJs for afterparties leading to a greater probability for sustainable attendance as well.
From a sponsorship perspective, brands will be able to rationalize paying higher site fees to teams to bring to life their own valuable, consumer experience enhancing activations.
However, this is only if a material number of regular season event days can be confirmed by the teams so each fixed activation costs can also be amortized over several months instead of potentially only four playoff gamedays before their team is eliminated.
Finally, the way in which bar and restaurant groups sponsor and have rights passed through to them by CPG sponsors of NHL teams could also change for the better.
That is, larger, sustainable watch party activations may become possible in popular summer social settings such as patios that typically have only shown summer events such as the World Cup or Euros in the past.
As incremental activation opportunities for brands to interact with consumers in public settings—such as bars, restaurants and fan fests—become more feasible and easily attainable over several summer months, brands who have previously identified the need to interact with these same consumers at summer events (such as music festivals and community events) may no longer find the need to sponsor many of these events. The ability to leverage NHL sponsorships with greater efficiency leading to increased ROI over the course of a new season calendar will also further justify increases in sponsorship fees, and therefore revenue for the league and teams alike.
As the Stanley Cup Qualifiers progresses into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the coming weeks, the NHL will get its first opportunity to test and measure the success of their ratings against MLB, NBA and MLS season restarts. The coming months should also be well spent by the NHL, researching and gauging fan interests in watching hockey over the summer months. As patios and private gatherings are allowed (with various levels of restriction) in each city taking part in the restart, it will also be wise for the league to begin building the foundation of larger, more official social gatherings to determine fan interests in varying sizes of viewing parties and public events once restrictions are lifted.
If the results are positive, a new normal for consuming spring and summer hockey will be possible starting next season.
By: Paul Macklam