May 23, 2008, 12:00 AM

NHL goes on an online offensive as Stanley Cup finals begin

National Hockey League fans have been flocking to Shop.NHL.com to purchase merchandise tied to the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, the two teams that will meet in the NHL’s championship starting tomorrow.

The Stanley Cup finals, which begin tomorrow night, represent the crowning moment of a National Hockey League season. And the league’s e-commerce team is going on an online offensive that it hopes will light up the sales scoreboard at Shop.NHL.com.

“We’re poised to capitalize on what could be the biggest sales opportunity around the cup champion in 10 years,” says Perry Cooper, vice president of NHL Direct. He says the league has a diversified marketing plan that includes banner ads on NHL.com, team web sites and the site of Sports Illustrated magazine, as well as an aggressive marketing campaign to an e-mail list that has grown by nearly 50% in the past year. Two other factors could contribute to stronger sales: The site offers a third more Stanley Cup-related styles this year than last, and the two teams in the finals, the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, are both in the top five in selling merchandise among the league’s teams.

Once a champion is crowned, the league will be ready with television and radio ads as well as online banners and buttons that will encourage fans to go to Shop.NHL.com to buy jerseys, T-shirts and caps celebrating the winning team. The NHL used a similar technique this week after Detroit and Pittsburgh won their conference crowns. “After Pittsburgh won, within five minutes we were on NHL.com and Penguins.com in great showcase positions,” Cooper says. “We’ll continue to do that when we have a champion.”

Fans of the two teams have been buying heavily all season at Shop.NHL.com, with Penguin gear sales up 139% and Red Wings sales up 49% over last season. Michigan fans bought only 28% of that Detroit gear and Pennsylvania residents only 48% of Pittsburgh purchases, illustrating the point that the NHL e-commerce site largely caters to what Cooper calls “displaced fans” who live some distance from the cities of their favorite teams. He says such fans make up 50% of NHL fans and about 60% of the shoppers at Shop.NHL.com, which is No. 297 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

He says the e-commerce site also figures to benefit from the 35% or more increase in visits to NHL.com since April 9, when the site introduced a new video viewer that lets fans choose from a menu of TV-like channels offering a variety of NHL-related content. Before the next season begins in the fall, the league plans to roll out the new video viewer to the web sites of all 30 NHL teams. “They’ll have their own production teams to film the behind-the-scenes stuff that avid fans clamor for, and we’ll use it to feed the programs we’re already creating here,” Cooper says.

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