When the NHL launched the annual Winter Classic outdoor game on New Year’s Day in 2008, it aimed to give the league a high visibility position on what had historically been a professional sports-devoid holiday.
The numbers over the last eleven years have proven that out, with the game consistently ranking as the most-watched NHL regular season game each year. The 2019 Winter Classic averaged 2.97 million viewers on NBC, including those who watched it on streaming platforms. In comparison, NBC Sports coverage of the NHL last season averaged 424,000 viewers per game.
No brand has taken better advantage of that spotlight than Bridgestone, which has served as the title sponsor of the event since 2009. Bridgestone is also the official tire of the NHL.
With that longevity comes a foundation to continue to build on each year the partnership continues, said Laurie Kepron, NHL Group vice president of integrated marketing.
“What a long-term partnership gives you is the ability to build on the platform, to create equity in programming, and we approach that every year with, ‘We will make it better,’” Kepron said. “When you have a longer runway, you have this ability to become entrenched in each other’s business and make sure our objectives align.”
Further growing into its role as the title sponsor of the annual New Year’s Day event, Bridgestone has focused on building out digital and social content to gain stronger brand exposure, said Amber Holm, Bridgestone vice president of marketing, consumer and customer engagement.
Last year, the brand had strong results with video content built around Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, so this year Bridgestone built out an extensive campaign with Nashville Predators forward Matt Duchene.
“We have every reason to believe that’s how consumers want to and do engage,” Holm said. “With us putting out compelling content, it gives us a great platform, so we’ve put a lot more investment into that and have seen a lot of success, so we continue to build and optimize that.”
As the third primarily college football venue to host the game, the expected 83,000 people in attendance at the Cotton Bowl would make this season’s Winter Classic the second-largest NHL crowd ever. The Dallas Sports Commission expects the event to generate between $30 and $35 million in economic impact.
Similarly, despite the warmer weather location for the game, the 60,000 tickets sold during the presale period make it the second-best Winter Classic presale performance.
The Cotton Bowl’s proximity to the Texas Fair Grounds also gives Bridgestone and the NHL a prime place to expand the Winter Classic Fan Festival to run longer as well as have bigger activations like carnival rides.
This year’s Winter Classic is also a signifier of what’s been a positive benefit to Bridgestone’s relationship with the NHL: significant growth in “non-traditional hockey markets,” Holm said. Additionally, the sport has a solid demographic mix for what the tire brand hopes to target.
“Hockey is a perfect partner for the brand because it’s exciting, fast-paced, the fans are tech-savvy, and it’s one of the youngest fan bases,” Holm said. “Hockey is a nice fit for where we’re trying to go.”
Kepron said having a flagship event like the Winter Classic in a non-traditional hockey market further helps draw in casual fans deeper to both the sport and its partners.
Bridgestone is using marketing to heavily target millennials, which Holm said is currently the largest generation in its peak driving years – looking to buy new cars, replace tires. She said the generation’s “forward-thinking and empowered for life’s journey” mindset matches well with Bridgestone’s brand messaging, and the NHL provides a solid base to reach the generation.
Holm said through the partnership’s history, the NHL fanbase has proven to be “more likely to be aware, consider and purchase” Bridgestone tires than the general population.
“It’s a tremendous business opportunity,” she said.
The Winter Classic provides a keystone event for the partnership, and the brand is excited by the focus the sport and event receive on January 1 every year.
“It’s an iconic event that brings the sport outdoors, where it’s meant to be played, and the players love it,” Holm said. “It’s the highest-rated regular-season game, and it is one of the top events in hockey, so to associate that with Bridgestone lets us own and be front and center at the event.”
Bridgestone also has individual team partnerships in place with the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights, Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, and the Edmonton Oilers. The Predators also play at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, which sits across the street from the brand’s U.S. headquarters.
Kepron said along with the Winter Classic and the brand’s team deals, the Bridgestone partnership plays a key part in many other major inflection points throughout the NHL season. Other activations around the All-Star Game and Stanley Cup Playoffs and NHL Awards are built around Bridgestone’s “clutch performance” slogan.
The current deal with Bridgestone runs through 2021, so the NHL is concentrated on finishing out strong and hasn’t yet started extension negotiations with the brand, Kepron said. It sounds as though both parties are happy, and those talks will likely heat up should all go according to plan in Dallas.
“We continue to be excited about the equity we build with them,” Kepron said. “It’s been very successful for both us, and they really are a wonderful company that supports the league, teams, and broadcast partners.”