BY JOE FAVORITO
ON N.J. SPORTS MARKETING
So you think some brands have an image problem? Try this one. You are a hockey league and one of your leading franchises is in Ontario...California. And you have Utah and Alaska alongside Reading and Johnstown. But you are the ECHL ... originally the East Coast Hockey League. Oy. So if you are the Trenton Devils, the least of your problems is explaining who you are to YOUR fans.
Now the ECHL is not the parent Devils top farm team — they play in Lowell, Mass., in the AHL. But the Trenton franchise presents a great opportunity for the NHL Devils to test ideas, grow brand market share in the state and expand their presence as New Jersey's hockey team. Much like the Mets and Yankees, with farm teams in New York City and the Yanks' Double A team in Trenton...and the Phillies, with their highly-successful affiliate in Lakewood.The Trenton Devils can be all about brand extension. Similar logo and colors, exciting game, and in the case of the Trenton team, a strong push to get affordable family experience involved at a time of year when parents are searching for things to do with their kids. Mascots, weekly meet-and greet-session with players and staff, and brand ties to local communities are all about what makes the Trenton Devils a good brand play.
Has it worked? The team is near the bottom of the ECHL in attendance, just over 2,100 a game, in a very crowded hockey corridor that has more NHL teams (Flyers and the three New York area teams) than any geographic area in the country. And while the parent Devils have a renewed interest in brand growth this year to match the success they have had for years on the ice, the resonation of an overall Devils affinity to fans is still very much a work in progress. Stronger affinity to the top team, stronger ties to see their future in Trenton. Also, minor league hockey is not the same experience that minor league baseball is. Fun summer nights in the warm outdoors, with a game in the area virtually every night, is not the same as January hockey, especially on weeknights where kids have schoolwork and few parents are off. There are also not all the natural breaks in the action in hockey that there are in baseball, making consistent fan engagement more of a challenge.
However, even with those challenges, the Trenton Devils continue to push for their place. Raffles for game-worn jerseys, bobble head nights and regular autograph sessions are the norm in an atmosphere that tries to play down the violence and play up the fun. It's not the easiest of a sell, but it is one that is being pushed in earnest to an area that is one of the nation's strongest in support of professional hockey and can help the Devils that play at the Pru extend their fan base and branding well to the south of Newark.
Yes the ECHL is a tough one to explain to fans. However the efforts of the Trenton Devils to grow their brand and even complement the success of their minor league baseball cousins in the summer, makes the branding of the league less of an issue, and worthy of some first-class attention.
Joe Favorito has over 23 years of strategic communications/marketing, business development and public relations expertise in sports, entertainment, brand building, media training, television, athletic administration and business. Visit him at JoeFavorito.com.
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