As the sports industry has widely shut down, teams have looked to find unique ways to keep fans engaged as well as work with their partners without the benefit of live games.
April 4 would have likely been one of the high-points of the New York Rangers season as it was set to close out the NHL regular season at home versus the Chicago Blackhawks, a game that would have hopefully set the team on a path into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But as the NHL season remains on hiatus, the team is instead using the day to celebrate one of its most recent high points: the four wins it had in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals to send the team to the Stanley Cup.
“We’ve trying to engage our fans as much as possible at this time in an appropriate way,” said Kristin Bernert, Madison Square Garden Co. executive vice president of sports operations and who oversees the business operations for the Rangers. “Our biggest concern is the health and wellness of our players, fans, and staff – part of that wellness is mental health, and we want to make sure we’re providing a little escape.”
Holding local rights for the Rangers as well as the New York Knicks, Islanders, Red Bulls, and New Jersey Devils, MSG Network has been leaning on archival footage and old games to keep fans engaged and entertained, as well as to replace all of the live programming it previously had scheduled for this time of year.
Kevin Marotta, MSG Networks senior vice president of marketing and content strategy, said as the network and the Rangers finalized plans to air this slate of memorable games, the two sides also started discussing ways to further elevate the viewing experience for fans.
“Whether a fan is going to watch all eight hours or come in and come out, we want to make sure that they’re not just reliving stuff from before but also getting something new,” Marotta said. “If you can add things that freshen up the programming, it gives people another reason to tune in for a while.”
Rangers staffers reached out to four players who were on that 2013-2014 team and helped the network arrange interviews with them to talk about those games and the experience of that Stanley Cup run. MSG Network host and reporter John Giannone interviewed them over videoconferencing software, which the network then recorded and edited to run alongside and during the games.
“We have to get creative as we’re limited in what we can do to engage fans,” Bernert said. “But while you’re limited in what you can do, sometimes having those guardrails breeds new ideas.”
Building out an eight-hour block of programming that hopefully will have fans glued to their televisions also led the Rangers and MSG Network to reach out to long-standing partner Anheuser-Busch regarding its new Bud Light initiative “Open for Takeout,” which aims to help restaurants and small businesses across the country.
“Our strategy with our partners doesn’t change – we want to deliver value and experiences to our fanbase, and that’s why brands want to partner with us,” Bernert said. “It’s just instead of doing it in-arena, we are limited to online and television.”
Joe Barnes, Bud Light sports marketing director, said the two sides have been in constant contact, and when MSG saw the program “they brought the idea for this weekend’s integration to us as a way to help us in in our effort to support all the local New York City bars and restaurants.”
During the game broadcasts, the Rangers will be picking fans who are watching on social media and share photos, as well as some season ticket holders. The team will then purchase dinner for them through the Bud Light program, which will be sent to them from a local restaurant so they can continue to watch from home.
“The initiative will help make it easier for people to support local businesses and their employees during these difficult times,” Barnes said. “It’s no secret that restaurants and bars have been impacted by everything going on. Bud Light wants to offer its platform as a resource for people who want to know where they can find takeout or delivery.”
Barnes said Bud Light is “in discussion with several other team partners on how we can incorporate the Bud Light Open For Take Out initiative into their local programming.”
Marotta said the network has looked to work in sponsor integration during its programming on a case-by-case basis, and that this opportunity with Bud Light “was a really nice tie in.” Bud Light will be tagged throughout the day, and will also help present the slate of programming.
“We all just want to make sure we’re engaging fans on another level,” he said.