Marketing the Classic: Behind the scenes of NHL's Wrigley TV spot

(Ed Note: This is Part One of Puck Daddy's interview with Brian Jennings, Executive Vice President of Marketing for the NHL, regarding how the League plans to sell and create interest around the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Part Two runs on Tuesday.)

For many hockey fans, it was an ingenious television commercial: The NHL using the late Chicago Cubs icon Harry Caray's "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" to promote the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks playing in the friendly (and frozen) confines of Wrigley Field on New Year's Day 2009.

But the NHL wasn't just trying to sell to the puckhead crowd; it was pitching its Winter Classic to the masses. Did it work? Not in the eyes of Lewis Lazare, the Chicago Sun-Times advertising columnist who savaged the spot with a "C+" grade today:

Because the game is yet to happen, ad agency Y & R and the NHL couldn't use actual footage of the event in the spot. But the 30-second effort needs far more than some fairly dull imagery of players in the locker room suiting up for a game to suggest hockey is a fast-paced, rough-and-tumble, even exciting game to watch. Some shots from the previous Winter Classic in Buffalo, which was played in a blizzard, might have helped more graphically provide a sense of what will unfold at Wrigley on New Year's Day, and how much the unpredictable weather may be a factor in the way the outdoor event unfolds.

The best thing about the new spot for the NHL Winter Classic, as it now stands, is the muted "musical" underscoring. Legendary baseball broadcaster Harry Caray is heard singing his rendition of "Take Me Out To the Ball Game," which is sure to excite hordes of baseball fans -- especially those with a sense of history -- who pack Wrigley every season. But will that music in any way rouse the hockey crowd, especially those with little or no connection to Wrigley Field?

It was a risk Brian Jennings and the NHL's marketing department was willing to take.

"It's a long season. How do we talk to our fans in a different and unique way?" said Jennings, the League's executive vice president of marketing. "What the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game provide is that mid-season kick that can excite them, as we head into the race for the Cup and the Stanley Cup playoffs."

In an interview conducted last week, Jennings explained the rationale behind the commercial, rejected TV spot concepts and the tricky (some would say near-blasphemous) nature of selling hockey with baseball tradition.

First off, as a refresher, here's the NHL's Winter Classic spot:

Now, here's Part One of our conversation with Jennings:

PD: What was the general aim for the commercial and for the first stage of marketing for the Winter Classic?

JENNINGS: The Winter Classic last year obviously captivated not only hockey fans but sports fans. It was that magical moment where different things, and the hockey gods, came together. With the game being played in Chicago, we really wanted to think about it. We wanted to be the voice of the fan.

Yeah, there are two Original Six teams; and we recognized that Chicago was going through this incredible revitalization and we certainly recognized the position that Detroit has. But in this iconic ballpark -- and Bob Costas would chastise me for saying that, because he actually said when he was doing a voiceover that you don't need to say "iconic" and "Wrigley" -- the fact of the matter is that we wanted to play up that we were going into this iconic stadium, and a magical place.

A lot of that came out when we started to collaborate with NBC and CBC and RDS. We had to play this up, because a casual fan of sports sees this stadium as unique, and wants to see how hockey will put a twist on it.

It seems like the marketing of this edition of the Classic is much more focused on venue than last season's, which played up the fact that Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins would be playing outdoors in a football stadium.

I don't want to diminish that it's a hockey game being played outdoors. But we had choices to make where we could have hosted this game, and it didn't happen by happenstance that Wrigley was chosen as the site. We think it's a magical place. Why not take advantage of playing that up?

One of the concepts we had initially was to film the Blackhawks against the Red Wings on Oct. 25 [in Chicago] and through special effects we'd have this ability to take the roof off the United Center; all of a sudden, people would start to disappear in the stands and they'd be replaced by lines of evergreens and snow banks.

We liked the concept, and thought it was pretty cool. But as we weighed it and thought about it, we realized we weren't playing up Wrigley. Snow banks are unique, but you could do ivy with ice trimmings on it. You could do brick with some snow on it. The more we talked, the more we thought through, the more we realized we needed to take advantage of the venue.

The commercial was a real pitch to casual sports fans that might not be into hockey. It's got that baseball thing going on throughout the ad. But the big play to those fans was using Harry Caray and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Where did that idea come from?

When you spend as much time as we spent with the team and at the stadium itself, it's hard not to realize the influence and the nostalgia -- from the pub across the street we've eaten at a dozen times to the big bronze statue in the front of the stadium. It just all kind of collided for us, and you just start to [hear him].

We worked closely with the Caray estate, and they were gracious. They thought it was an honor. The whole notion of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." And they way he sings it ... I don't think anyone else captures that emotion.

But it's a pretty punk rock move for the NHL. I can't think of a pro sport that ever used iconography or a song from another competitive sport to market their event. It's such an interesting juxtaposition for the NHL to do this, at a time when you hear all this stuff about trying to make the brand unique. You're using a baseball song to sell hockey.

For us, it's a tribute to Harry Caray and the stadium. We talk about this a lot in our group: respecting the past but representing the future. When you do that in hockey, you have to be careful of it. In baseball, it was along those lines.

But you're right: it was a risk. Is this too much with baseball?

At the end of the day, absolutely not. We thought it was the right striking of balance between what the NHL Winter Classic has become -- a celebration of hockey being brought to the outdoors -- and having a place at the table with the casual sports fan, on a day formerly dominated by college football.

Last year, we had a place at the table. This year, we're trying to make sure it's a prominent place.

In typical past, I think sometimes you can get blinders on as a marketer. It was a nice [change] from the typical path. Even some of those shots of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, those close-ups, you can't get those in a broadcast or a showing of a highlight film.

There's this great shot of Kane where he's sitting with his ball cap on, looking up, and you almost get that image of a young Chicago Cub at that age. It all kind of played into it.

I'll say this: You guys played with fire a little bit, because some of those scenes of guys suiting up evoked that "My NHL" metro-sexual samurai ad coming out of the lockout.

I know you have very strong feelings on that one, so I won't touch it! And I wasn't in the role at that time.

With the locker room scene in this spot ... you can't show hockey. Because hockey in a rink is taking away from the anticipation of this event. That's the thinking that goes into it.

Besides, what are you going to show? Last year's Winter Classic? You aren't going to show the United Center. It would defeat the purpose of building anticipation for this game, at this site.

On Tuesday, Part Two of our interview focuses on humor in TV spots, some upcoming surprises in NHL marketing and whether certain Wrigley Field traditions will continue during the Winter Classic.

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