The NHL’s San Jose Sharks and Las Vegas Golden Knights launched subscription-based fan clubs featuring exclusive merchandise and behind-the-scenes content for out-of-market supporters in 2019.
But the coronavirus pandemic has caused each to rely on a more holistic digital approach to connect with their fan bases while the hockey season remains suspended.
San Jose’s content strategy during the NHL’s hiatus has been highlighted by its embrace of EA Sports’ NHL 20 video game. What began as a rendition of the Sharks’ remaining schedule on the game has expanded to alumni matchups against rival Western Conference franchises with fan participation.
“We create profiles for fans and add them to our roster,” Doug Bentz, the team’s vice president of marketing and digital, said. “At times, they score a winning goal, and we have our General Manager Doug Wilson give them a call after the game to congratulate them.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Monday that the league would abandon the rest of its regular season and head straight to a post-season with 24 participants compared to the traditional 16. A specific date hasn’t been announced. But under this scenario, the Sharks’ year is over.
Prior to the announcement, Bentz said the Sharks have at least four more weeks of alumni games scheduled as the organization awaits the return of live play.
The NHL 20 initiative, broadcast on the Sharks’ Twitch channel, also serves as a focal point for San Jose to integrate brand sponsors such as Zoom, Toyota, and SAP.
“I think the virtual game simulations are a good example of how we’ve integrated sponsors over this period,” Bentz said. “We have game entitlements for those matchups and Intermission features that carry over from real-life games.”
San Jose saw a significant drop-off in traffic for its subscription-based 1991 Club early on in the coronavirus pandemic. The franchise responded by offering seven-day trials to fans interested in joining the community.
Memberships have nearly doubled thanks to the promotion. As of late May, the 1991 Club has roughly 800 members. The Sharks next year will also shift their editorial focus to more on off-the-ice content for fans. The fan club currently offers merchandise discounts and a content library of podcasts and videos.
“We’re looking forward to almost a relaunch,” Bentz said. “We’ve taken this time to do a site redesign and improve the backend in addition to the free trial. There are a few other improvements that we’ll do when we relaunch for next season.”
The Golden Knights’ VGK Worldwide supporters club had seen a slight uptick in members since February when the franchise reported having thousands of members. Launched in April 2019, VGK Worldwide offers fan meetups, newly-designed merchandise, and access to a private Facebook group where exclusive team content is posted.
“We continue to do ‘Fan of the Month’ during the pandemic to highlight different stories of our worldwide members and kind of how they became fans,” Eric Tosi, vice president of communications and content at the Golden Knights, said.
Similar to the Sharks, the Golden Knights’ fan outreach efforts have focused on social media and digital platforms during the health crisis. This year’s virtual NFL Draft, originally scheduled to take place in Las Vegas, provided a clear opportunity for the franchise to activate around one of the NFL’s tentpole events.
To commemorate the newly-relocated Las Vegas Raiders, the Golden Knights created videos and social graphics welcoming both of the NFL team’s first-round picks Henry Ruggs III and Damon Arnette to town. Content included the creation of customized Golden Knights jerseys for the new pro athletes.
“Some of the highest engagement that we’ve seen in the pause was our Raiders draft-related content that had the Vegas Golden Knights spin on it,” Tosi said. The video featuring Ruggs III’s Golden Knights jersey, as an example, generated 58,000 views on Twitter.
The Golden Knights have made workouts, a new book club, and cooking recipes available to fans looking for entertainment while in quarantine, as well as educational activities parents can use to teach children.
The pandemic also prompted the franchise to launch “Knights Report,” a 30-minute show on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. The show features team broadcasters interviewing executives and local officials while also providing news updates from around the NHL. Knights Report has so far earned 400,000 views.
“Creating series like ‘Knights Report’ also helps with our sponsorship partners,” Tosi said. “So we’ve been able to incorporate entitlement sponsors into Knights Report broadcasts that haven’t been able to have the same reach without any games.”