Selling Itself Short: How The EIHL Is Handicapping Itself With Its Own PR (And How Several Teams Are Breaking The Mould)

Marketing. It’s a thorny issue in the EIHL. After all, any mention of improving it tends to be instantly met by cries from some of “well, WE think it’s working fine” and “…but there’s no money for that!”. The job of “selling” British hockey in a country dominated by football and rugby is not an easy one, admittedly-but in its attempt to carve out a niche for itself, EIHL hockey marketing is increasingly developing in a direction which is not only seeming to forget it’s a sport, but also killing any atmosphere around it in the first place.

Let me explain. The very essence of sport’s appeal, the very essence of sports fandom itself, is that it’s basically legalised regional war with rules. It’s one of the few situations in which people of all races, genders and outlooks can unite in a tribe against “the other lot” and feel some sort of group identity in a fashion which isn’t harmful or destructive to those within it. The history of sport as a uniting force and also a way to allow people to feel pride in something is widely documented-look at the effect Liverpool and Everton have had on their city’s people through tough times, or, in EIHL cities, the reaction Hull City’s fans have had to their team’s identity potentially being taken away from it.

Which is all very well-except for the fact that any attempt to get an atmosphere going in many EIHL rinks is instantly annihilated once the game starts, as most rinks in the UK are filled with music and entertainment more akin to a One Direction concert or Saturday morning kids TV than a sporting event. In their drive to attract fans, the EIHL appear to have decided en masse that they’re going to go for a nice, friendly place where families can come, kids can run around enjoying themselves and sing along to the latest hits, and focus on turning the whole fan experience into a night out.

There’s one trouble with this:

It pretty much kills any chance hockey has of being considered a sporting event, and also any serious passion amongst the crowd. British hockey matchnights are being turned into an identikit experience where everyone gets along perfectly fine.

That’s great at a pep rally, a party or anywhere else. But at a sporting event-an environment which thrives on rivalries, people becoming involved in the heat of competition, the life is slowly being sucked out of UK hockey matchnights by the very people who claim that they want the best in atmosphere. By positioning themselves as “family entertainment” rather than a sport, British hockey is becoming sterile and anodyne.

Defenders of the “family friendly” policy will no doubt point to rising crowds as  a result-and yes, we are seeing people attracted to UK hockey. But the same people who say “we want hockey to be family friendly” will complain that there’s no atmosphere, no passion, and that clubs all over the league are increasingly seeing fans as money trees. This is particularly prevalent in places like Coventry, who were one of the few clubs NOT to reduce ticket prices (bafflingly) for the midweek Challenge Cup quarter finals.

Then, of course, we have the actions of certain league representatives. The EIHL this year has seen one of its most prominent members in Dave Simms publicly post misogynistic comments in advertising for a Sheffield PR girl, admit to racially abusing members of the Pakistani community and publicly get involved in trading insults with EIHL players both past and present (Joe Grimaldi, ex of Edinburgh, and Rory Rawlyk, ex of Coventry, are two that come to mind).

Couple that with Sheffield and several other clubs producing PRs littered with spelling mistakes, attacks on their own players in “official” podcasts the day before they’re released by club employees (Sheffield again)  the poor use of social media by several teams that seems to show a lack of interest in actually engaging with fans (some teams don’t even do matchnight updates (or if they do they’re sporadic at best), a preoccupation with snide digs at other teams or leagues (Nottingham Panthers are particularly guilty of this) and the overall lack of personality and lack of imagination from the majority of the league and you wonder what on earth the marketing teams are doing at some clubs-besides getting a free ride, that is.

Before I get accused of tearing the EIHL down, though, let’s look at the other side of things. Believe it or not, there are some EIHL teams that have this marketing thing down pat, and (gasp) they tend to be the teams reaping the rewards, while at the same time bringing the failings of their peers into sharp focus. Let’s take a look at them.

Perhaps the best possible examples of hockey being a uniting force and marketed to everyone, providing a common identity
in the EIHL can be seen in Belfast, Braehead, Fife and Edinburgh-and the fascinating thing is-they’re all doing it in different ways.

In Belfast and Fife, the marketing has always aimed to project a message of unity & pride in their city as selling points. In Belfast, the way that purposely emphasising that they’re a “team for all in Belfast” has caused great success in a Northern Irish sporting landscape traditionally riven by divisions along religious and political lines. In Fife, too, the Flyers are unashamedly part of Kirkcaldy-often to the exclusion of other teams even just across the Forth.

But here’s another key thing…when you go to the Odyssey, the sense of place you get is amazing. From the moment you walk into the foyer, there are images of Giants players, celebrations of success…the tribal feel is created all the way in. The same is noticeable at traditional bear-pit rinks like Fife…from the moment one walks in, the emphasis is on creating an environment that the opposition will find unfriendly and fostering pride in the home team.

While their matchnight differs (Belfast, as an arena team, attempt to market the whole matchnight experience and also have embraced fan media as a way to get their message further out there while Fife is all about the hockey), both teams are incredibly active in the local community (in Belfast, it’s written into their contracts). In Fife, the focus is on the Fighting Flyers…players such as Matt Nickerson are firm fan favourites and are out meeting fans as often as possible. It’s something that isn’t really seen at certain other teams.

Perhaps the best examples of what can be achieved through actual marketing effort in the EIHL are in Braehead and Cardiff, though. The Clan have always been a progressive organisation, and can be justly proud of the work done to establish themselves in a crowded sporting market in Glasgow. This season, though, they’ve moved up a gear, with sellout crowds becoming more regular, setting up their own regular half-hour TV show (which goes far beyond the traditional “two blokes talking about hockey” format to show the personalities behind the team). Oh yes, and they’ve also focused on material specifically aimed at attracting corporate sponsors-a move that seems so obvious but has only really seen Belfast do it to this point. And it’s a superb package that shows the scale of their marketing efforts, with a corporate brochure, attempts to form links to the local business community with a Business Club and the jewel-a corporate video that shows just how successful their efforts are as well as the extent of their marketing efforts:

In Cardiff, meanwhile, Todd Kelman has taken the successful template he used in Belfast and raised it up several notches. The Devils PR strategy is simple…don’t sell a product, sell being part of a community, using regular interaction with fans on social media, and clever touches like customised boards and programme messages welcoming away fans each week. Like this one:

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How clever is that? And more to the point-how simple for all teams to do to make fans feel part of something and that their effort watching their team is appreciated in a league where teams don’t always make that obvious?

I’ve written extensively about the efforts in Cardiff and Braehead and their effects-but now it’s got to the point where they’re frankly showing up the rest of the EIHL.

Other teams are slowly starting to follow suit. Doubtless at this point there will be claims of “budget and resources” but that is, frankly, a crock of an argument that can be disproved easily. Edinburgh are generally accepted as one of the “poorer” teams in the EIHL financially, but this year they, too, have massively stepped up their PR/marketing game in a way that puts the “big” teams to shame, with links with local companies, offers and PR image work to die for-I mean…look at this PR image and tweet from the Capitals of goalie Tomas Hiadlovsky in front of Edinburgh Castle. It’s BEAUTIFUL:

Watching the strides made and the efforts committed to marketing by teams such as Braehead, Cardiff, Belfast and now Edinburgh this year, and the frankly shambolic errors made by others who can’t claim lack of resources, including some of the biggest teams-(Sheffield, Coventry, Nottingham in particular) it’s making me and others wonder “if some teams are doing it so well, the only reason other teams aren’t is clearly because they’re not willing to make the effort”.

And that is a massive shame. In their lack of interest, some of the biggest teams in the EIHL are dragging the image of the league down and negating the incredible work being done by others. There needs to be a realisation across the league that what one team does reflects on all in terms of professionalism, and that the teams who are putting the effort in are the ones reaping the rewards.

If you’re a neutral investor at the moment-where does your money go? It goes to the teams who sell themselves the best-the most professionally run who can convince you that your money will be used well. And in the EIHL, Cardiff, Braehead, Belfast and Edinburgh are doing that by a street.

But their efforts are being hampered by the refusal of other teams to follow them, and it’s holding the EIHL back.

Other teams need to realise this, and quickly. Before they get left behind. Because eventually, their lack of professionalism, apathy (and in Sheffield’s case, outright failure to recognise that having a club representative say the kind of stuff that would get most sports teams employees fired on a regular basis is a bad thing) will destroy not just them, but potentially the rest of the league as well.

Publc image is everything in this world. The EIHL needs to follow the lead of its most progressive clubs and sharpen theirs the heck up, or the sport will never, ever reach its full potential in Britain.

They haven’t realised it yet, but they need to. Quickly.

2 thoughts on “Selling Itself Short: How The EIHL Is Handicapping Itself With Its Own PR (And How Several Teams Are Breaking The Mould)

  1. The complete accuracy of this article is spot on! Having been involved in the wonderful sport at all levels in USA and UK it is imperative that the growth of the sport be more than just show but emotional attachment to the team representation. Team identity can waiver at times but the strongest teams maintain it the longest. Great article! Time to put the marketing and management of the team together so the product on the ice reflects the personality of its fans and ultimately the community and tradition.

    Coach W. Stirling Wright

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