I think the Leafs should be a little worried about the health of their brand. While they have been bad for the entire century so far, this year feels even more disconnected and puts them at risk, if things are not fixed. There are major signs of brand health issues, which usually show up in advance of any issues with brand wealth. But I think with a quick shot of the optimism drug over the summer, the crazy Leaf fans will be hooked again.
Here are the brand health issues that should raise concern:
Leaf game not shown on TV? Last Saturday, Hockey Night in Canada decided not to air the Leafs game on the main network for the first time in forty years. With TV media, there are so many games on TV and on-line, that the big Saturday night game is not the same. In fact, the biggest risk now is that I can see 82 games of any team I want.
No sell out? This past Monday, the Leafs failed to sell out for the first time in 15 years. While giving up a little revenue for not selling out, the bigger risk here is that if tickets are going for $30, then it takes away the mystique of going to the game. The good news is the Leafs have announced they won’t raise ticket prices. I love that they actually felt compelled enough to announce this, which shows the true power of the brand.
Fans cheering for the Leafs to lose: Not only are the Leafs tanking this season to get a good draft pick, but the fans are also cheering for the opponents so that the Leafs do lose. If the Leafs are bad again next year, the fans may again cheer against the Leafs. If this goes on for 5 years, do these fans go find another team?
Fans are mad at the current team: Fans are so enraged at the current crop of Leafs that they continue to boo the best players and have thrown sweaters on the ice in dis-respect of the team. The players took it upon themselves to “not salute the fans” as their retribution. It’s never good to go to war with the fans when the only thing you have is fans.
The Leafs brand is on pause this year. The fans are on hold, waiting to see what happens next. I believe if the Leafs get rid of a few players, draft a big name (even if it’s not McDavid) and get a big name coach, they would create the perception that they are moving in the right direction. As we discuss below, the Leafs are not really focused on winning the cup, but rather giving the illusion and optimism that they “could” win the cup.
The success of the Leafs brand defies logic
When we look at the most valuable sports franchises around the world, whether it’s Ferrari, Manchester United, Real Madrid, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers or New England Patriots, they usually have one thing in common: THEY WIN. And in most cases, they win a lot. We’ve never really found out what happens to those brands when they lose. And then there’s the Toronto Maple Leafs who recently joined the ranks of the most valued brands, now worth an estimated $1.2 Billion.
- The last time the Leafs won a hockey championship was 1967, when Lyndon Johnson was President, The Beatles were releasing the Sgt Pepper’s album and Wal-Mart only had 24 stores (all still in Arkansas). It was even 8 years before Justin Bieber’s mom would be born.
- The Leafs have made the playoffs once since 2004. None of their current players were even in the league in 2004. And they are the only NHL team not to make the playoffs during those years.
- There were two major work stoppages in the NHL in 2005 and 2012–one wiped out an entire season, the other a half season. In both of those years, the value of the Leafs jumped up. And yet, since 2004, the value of the Toronto Maple Leafs has gone up from $280 Million to $1.2 Billion.
So clearly for the Leafs, actually playing and winning the games doesn’t really matter to value of the Leafs brand. Yes, Apple’s market value has gone up at a faster pace, but they’ve launched iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad and the Macbook during that time.
Most great brands have a vision for the future: what’s the Leafs brand vision?
Like any sports team, the Leafs will state their vision of “we want to win the Stanley Cup”. It sounds good. It’s what you’re supposed to say. Proof for what the real vision might be in the fact that for past 15 years they were owned by a pension fund and they rewarded their President financially, not for how the Leafs did on the ice, but how well the Leafs did off the ice. And now they are owned by a media conglomerate who sees the Leafs as content to get the millions of insane Leafs fans watching in person, on TV and on-line. I believe a more appropriate Brand Vision for the Leafs is “to be the most beloved sports franchise” or even a stretch “to be the most valued sports franchise in the world”.
Does winning matter? Yes, but it’s a strategy to help the vision of being the most loved or most valuable sports franchise. It’s the “how” you get to the vision, but not the vision itself. The hook is to appear that you are doing the right things to try to win the cup–enough to keep the fan base engaged.
Holding the Leafs up to the principles of a beloved brand
I once had an economics professor who said: “economics proves that what happens in real life can actually happen in theory”. Well, I usually use the Apple brand to prove how the theories of Beloved Brands work, but let’s take the Leafs brand on a test run and see how they line up.
First, we believe that consumers connect with brands based on a “big idea”. That’s the tough question for the Leafs: what is their big idea? Is it the heritage/history, being the home team of the biggest hockey market or the great underdog story? At times, it’s been the “loveable losers”, where the mediocre/good players like Palmateer or Vaive become legends in the community. But that’s still not enough to make the brand that connected. The big idea during Steinbrenner’s Yankees was “we will do whatever it takes to win–at any cost” whereas the Montreal Canadiens are all about “we maintain the pride and dignity of history and we’ll do what’s right in our pursuit of victory”. It’s hard to truly see a big idea to connect with the Leafs. While most fans have this nagging feeling in the back of their mind that the Leafs will never win in their lifetime, I believe they cheer for the Leafs “to stay engaged enough just in case there is that once in a lifetime chance to win the cup”. So the Leafs are more like a potential “once in a lifetime eclipse” that fans want to see or even a lottery ticket. The only other sports brand like the Leafs are the loveable Chicago Cubs. If the Leafs are that “eclipse”, I’ve always debated that if they ever do win the Cup, would more people keep watching or would people stop watching. The Toronto Blue Jays may prove that once they won the World Series, the Toronto fans were like “great, so what’s next” and moved on. My guess is that I’ll never know the answer to this question, as I don’t expect the Leafs to ever win the cup.
Once you have the brand idea for your brand, you need to map out the 5 Brand Connectors to help deliver that brand idea: the brand promise, strategy, brand story, innovation and a culture that helps deliver the promise.
Arguably, the Leafs might be defying all 5 of these sources of connectivity.
Most beloved sports teams can say “we promise to deliver an on-field team that will always be competitive enough to win a championship”. The Yankees, Man U, Ferrari, the Canadiens, and Real Madrid can easily say that. The Leafs promise to “win a championship” feels hollow. If that was their promise, the brand would be a complete failure. Fans would walk away and the value of the team would fall. Well, at least for a normal team. When fans get excited about the Leafs, the world feels better, they are happy and optimistic for the future.
The real promise
The real promise for the Leafs is “we’ll make you feel good even if the pursuit of victory is greater than the victory itself.” Maybe if you have that underdog spirit in your own life, you see hope in the Leafs where no one else sees hope. But the problem for this year is that when they lose, that optimism comes crashing down. A friend of mine who is a Leafs fan had a baby a few weeks ago, and posted on Facebook “when do you break it to the kid that the Leafs won’t win a Championship in his lifetime?” Sadly, that kid will be a Leaf fan. He now bleeds blue. And will pay thousands of dollars towards the Leafs coffers over his lifetime.
In terms of players, the Leafs have relied the last 15 years on signing free agents. But in managing the brand, they focus on hyping up the players, they build up the optimism at the beginning of each year and keep the fan base engaged with constant communication and stay reasonably competitive to at least give hope for getting in the playoffs. The Leafs managed to keep the fan base hooked by constantly feeding them optimism. The problem this year is that they’ve fallen so far out of the playoffs the talk of re-build has the fans confused. Those players they’ve hyped turned out to be jerks, who won’t salute the fans, refuse interviews and don’t even try on the ice. It’s hard for the Leafs to hype players that aren’t well-liked.
As I was growing up, the Leafs always successfully connected the past (Johnny Bower, Bobby Baun or Daryl Sitler) to the current team. The stories stressed the values of toughness, hard work and how the underdog always over-achieved in the face of adversity. That story fits nicely to the Leaf teams of the 90s with Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Felix Potvin who went to the semi-finals in back to back years. However, today’s current Leaf teams are the opposite: over-hyped, over-paid and under-achieving players like Kessel and Phaneuf, certainly not aligned to the values of toughness and hard work.
For a sports team, freshness comes through the signing of new players and then building optimism around those players. The problem is the salary cap and the current roster has the team trapped. The tanking to get a draft pick has been a good strategy as it will provide someone (McDavid or even Strome) that they can build around. You will see this summer that the Leafs will build all the optimism of a rebuild around the youthful team. And fans will buy into it.
There are only two ways to experience the brand–either in person or on TV. Going to a Leaf game has a buzz and excitement to it. The tickets are usually so expensive that it is so rare for the average person to get to go. The TV games are rooted in history: “Hockey Night in Canada” at 7 pm has been one of the highest-rated TV shows since the 1950s. And so this year, we’ve now seen two things happen. Last Saturday, for the first time since the early 1970s, the Leafs were not shown on Hockey Night in Canada, with the CBC choosing the Montreal Canadiens game. It’s all about ratings, even though the network that shows the games owns the Leafs. And this past Monday, the Leaf game wasn’t a sellout, and on StubHub, you can easily get tickets for $25. So while this is your chance to finally go to a game, no one really wants to even go.
How the Leafs make money
Like any brand, there are really only 8 ways to make more money: premium pricing, trading up with price, lower cost of goods, efficient spending, stealing share. getting loyal users to use more, entering new markets and finding new uses for the brand.
Ticket prices for the Leafs are the highest in the NHL–an average of $375 over 42 home games, which is three times the average ticket price for Detroit Red Wings or even six times the price for Tampa Bay. Getting tickets to a game is nearly impossible for the average fan. Every game is a sell-out. It’s a 40-year wait for Leaf season tickets. These end up in people’s wills. The ACC also uses the strong luxury box and platinum ticket sales to trade the business consumers up on price–so not only are they paying $1,000, but they also have to order enough food and drinks to support a luxury box. If the Leafs look at an extended downturn on a play or even a 5-year turnaround, it likely won’t impact the average price but it may impact the # of sell-outs–especially as the Leafs just experienced their first non-sellout in 15 years.
Control of costs works in favor of the Leafs. The NHL has a salary cap that holds teams to $60 Million per year, which is 6% of the team’s brand value. For the other hockey teams worth $200 Million, that’s 30% of their brand value. That’s a huge competitive advantage for the Leafs–still defies why they can’t win. There’s no real need for “marketing costs” as every game is on TV, with normal exceptionally strong ratings. While the ratings are only in Canada, they are such a dominant ‘country brand’ that it makes the local market all of Canada, which means it has access to 30 Million people. The Leafs receive added earned media with 2 sports TV stations, 3 radio stations, and 3 major Newspapers constantly covering every move the team makes. Both sports stations hold a daily live show at lunchtime.
The Leafs dominate the media landscape but end up sharing that revenue with the NHL. It’s estimated that 70% of the league revenues come from Canada–my guess is that most of that comes from the Leafs. For the Leafs merchandise sales are very strong. The Leafs announced it was changing its third jersey to be a replica of the 1967 jersey. Which means all those fans have to go out and drop another $129 on a new jersey. This past year, the Leafs have added a sports bar to the ACC, just outside the arena that has hundreds of TVs and seating for two thousand people. With a roster currently filled with unpopular players, the Leafs need a few popular players for the fans to put a name on the back to really drive up the merchandise sales.
The Leafs have expanded the size of the market by driving sponsorship and even creating Leafs TV. The team’s sponsorship drive is incredible–carrying an astounding 50+ sponsors on its roster–including separating out the banking category into Core Banking, Wealth Banking, Credit Card banking, which allows them to get money from three separate banks. Sponsorship is a money machine. The Leafs TV expands the brand for the most loyal followers to connect even more. The Leafs have also launched a bar attached to their stadium that holds another 2,200 fans who drink and eat during the 2 and 1/2 hour game. If the crowd shrinks or the Leafs lose early each time, this bar will be clearing out by the 2nd period.
In 2011 with the world facing a global recession, following up on a 29th place finish in the standings, the Leafs revenue went up ELEVEN PERCENT!!! And then they raised ticket prices. Because of the player strike a few years ago, player costs have gone down from $69 million to $57 million. Revenue up, costs down–that’s a P&L the people of Price Waterhouse dream about. A lot of the value is now connected to how much money will be made in the future. The NHL just signed a 10-year labor contract giving the Leafs cost certainty and a 5-year media deal giving the Leafs revenue certainty. While I still don’t think the Leafs will win a championship in the next 10 years, I would bet they will hit $2 Billion.
It’s not easy being a Leaf Fan. Yet like a drug, it’s not easy to stop being a Leaf fan.