When ESPN won the rights to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the expectations were that the World Wide Leader would find a way to sell this tournament to casual fans through its coverage, its conversations and most of all its marketing.
But hockey fans weren’t necessarily prepared for the marketing direction they decided to take.
The World Cup of Hockey spots started airing during the Stanley Cup Playoffs featuring different players appearing on a hockey talk show hosted by Reg Carling, an over-the-top caricature who attempts to coax the players into confirming his assumptions about the tournament: That Patrick Kane is obsessed with beating Canada, that Brandon Saad and the Under-23 team are afraid to play “men,” and whether Nicklas Backstrom can get him tickets. (They’re available, Reg.)
For fans conditioned by years of NHL marketing – action, the warrior aesthetic, healthy doses of nostalgia – seeing a lighter, personality-based approach from ESPN was jarring.
Although hearing that ESPN hockey theme again is pretty dope …
But the “jarring” was by design, according to Michael Kopech, director of marketing at ESPN.
“Because we’re launching the campaign during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Finals, when you have so much intensity on the ice and in the surrounding advertising, we felt we needed to do something different to get people’s attention. So we went with a more personality-driven, humor vein,” he said.
In other words: There is no World Cup of Hockey footage to use in intense montages. And anything that the NHL and ESPN tried to create that was action-centric would have failed to rise to the intensity of the playoffs. It would have been lost in the cacophony.
“There was an obvious challenge there. This was a way to meet that challenge. You can’t match the intensity of the NHL Playoffs. Any kind of on-ice action you can show it’s going to measure up with the real thing on the ice, so we went in a different direction,” said Kopech.
Hence, “Reg Carling” was born. Played by an Improv actor from Chicago, he was created as an “amalgamation” of some of the game’s more colorful off-ice characters like Don Cherry and Barry Melrose. He’s also got a bit of Jim Carr from “Slap Shot” and Mike Myers’ Don Cherry proxy Donnie Shulzhoffer from “Mystery, Alaska.”
The commercials have been distinct and memorable, although not always for the right reasons. Reaction to the ads on social media has been decidedly negative, and the pundits have gotten in their licks too:
Is ESPN happy with the reaction?
“There’s definitely been positive and negatives. I’d say we’re pleased people are noticing them, as that’s always a challenge,” he said. “By and large the response has been pretty positive – the Patrice Bergeron execution, the Nicklas Backstrom one. We did catch a little heat with Patrick Kane, but I think that had more to do with Kane than the campaign itself.”
Ah, yes, Patrick Kane.
The first World Cup of Hockey ad featured Kane, and there was more than a little pushback from hockey fans on social media. Please recall that Kane didn’t take part in the unveiling of the tournament last September because he was under investigation for sexual assault in Erie County, N.Y.. No charges were eventually brought against Kane, and the NHL said it found no wrongdoing on Kane’s part in its own investigation.
Did ESPN know including the Chicago Blackhawks star would be a controversial choice?
“Everything we’ve done is in consultation with the NHL and its marketing department,” Kopech said. “Patrick Kane is the best player in the League, and the best player in Team USA. We worked closely with the NHL to vet using him in the campaign, and ultimately there was a comfort level there that we could use him, and so we did. But yes, it was all considered, prior to making the decision.”
Kane’s ad is one of five created for the campaign thus far. Kopech said he expects there to be 8-10 ads in total. Future installments will include ESPN hockey talent Steve Levy and Barry Melrose, whom we hear has a big role in the Team Europe spot.
Future ads will focus on the expected intensity on the ice when the World Cup of Hockey returns in September in Toronto. But right now ESPN said it’s in the “awareness phase” of the marketing campaign – and, at the very least, fans have taken notice.
“The challenge we’re faced with is that not a lot of people know what [the World Cup] is. Even some hardcore hockey fans don’t know what it is. It hasn’t been around for a number of years. So first and foremost, we were seeking to educate people on what the World Cup of Hockey is. That it exists, and give a little insight into the teams and the players who will be participating,” said Kopech.
“We want fans to see these spots and get them excited about the existence of the World Cup.”
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