As CMO of the National Hockey League, Heidi Browning’s job is to see where marketing’s proverbial puck is going and to skate to it. But doing that demands a level of insight and agility that can be more easily attained when a marketer handles its ad budge itself. At least, that’s what Browning is betting on.

In the fourth quarter of 2018, the Browning brought the NHL’s digital media buying in-house in an effort to better use its content — including a pair of original episodic shows — to find segments of casual observers, convert them into documented fans and use the corresponding data to find more of them. While the NHL has taken digital media buying in-house, it will continue to work with outside agencies and productions studios on creative, said a league spokesperson who declined to comment on the size of the NHL’s advertising budget. The league joins the ranks of brands like Electrolux and Nationwide that have taken their advertising in-house to assume greater control and flexibility. According to Digiday research, a majority of marketers surveyed cited increased control or quicker turnaround times as the greatest benefit for going in-house.

The NHL is especially interested in appealing to younger fans, specifically millennials and members of Generation Z. That audience segment explains why the league spends a lot of its ad dollars on social platforms, according to Browning, who declined to say exactly what percentage. And that social spending would help to explain the decision by the NHL to take its media buying in house.

Social platforms generally offer sophisticated self-serve ad-buying tools that can be used with minimal spend. Such a low barrier to entry enables marketers to test campaigns against particular audience segments before deciding whether to invest more money to reach more people. That flexibility has fueled the rise of many direct-to-consumer marketers, and the NHL saw an opportunity to take advantage of that agility to establish more direct relationships of its own with fans. “Having direct control over media investment and the analytics behind it creates better opportunities to have real-time optimization,” said Browning.

Overseeing the NHL’s media buying is Alyssa Musto, who prior to joining the league in July 2018 as senior manager of customer acquisition, had managed customer acquisition marketing for Meredith’s Entertainment Weekly and People. “She had that direct response focus,” said Browning.

Musto’s experience in performance marketing appealed to Browning because the league is concentrating on not only using advertising to get people to tune into games but also to sign up for programs, like its Inside the Crease email newsletter or Bracket Challenge contest, in order to grow its fan database.

The NHL has been building out what Browning described as its “fan engagement platform,” a system through which the league will be able to use the data that it is able to collect from people who sign up for its newsletters and contests. “We’re in the process of cleaning and unifying all the data and applying lifetime value models and understanding fan affinity,” Browning said.

Understanding its fans is particularly important for the NHL at the moment because the league’s content is having a bit of a moment. TV and digital viewership of NHL games have grown compared to last year. As of March 7, the average TV viewership for NBC’s broadcasts of NHL games had increased by 10% year over year to 1.42 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch. Digital viewership has similarly grown to average 431,000 viewers as of March 20, a 4% increase compared to last season, per the same publication. and The NHL may have been around since 1917, but “it’s a new game. There are more goals being scored. The game is faster than it’s ever been. There’s an opportunity for us, especially with the casual fan,” said Browning.

To seize that opportunity, the NHL has been trying to raise the profile of not only the game but its players. To coincide with the start of the latest regular season, in October the league premiered two original series featuring its players off the ice. Since bringing buying in-house, the NHL’s media buys have centered on promoting those shows, according to an NHL spokesperson.

“Skates Off” delves into what players do when they are off the ice, and “What’s in the Box?,” which aired its season finale in February, has players blindly reach into a box to guess what is inside. The league posts episodes of the series to its various social accounts, including YouTube, Facebook and Instagram’s long-form video service IGTV. Across those social platforms as of April 2, “Skates Off” has garnered 13.3 million views and 46 million impressions, and “What’s in the Box?” has nabbed 18 million views and 52 million impressions, according to the spokesperson.

Promoting its players is important for the NHL to break some of the tribalism that surrounds the sport and can curb people’s interest to only tune in when particular teams are playing. “We’re really trying to focus on the faces and personalities. There are so many young, amazing stars that are changing the game,” said Browning.

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