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Why doesn't NHL market Steven Stamkos better?

Steven Stamkos
Published Jan. 25, 2015

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos seemingly has it all.

He is one of the best hockey players in the world. He has looks, personality. Plus, he's humble.

"As far as being likeable as an athlete, Steven is off the charts," said the NHL's chief marketing officer, Brian Jennings. "He's a terrific young guy."

Then why hasn't Stamkos, 24, a marketer's dream, been promoted more by the league? Though Stamkos has established himself on the ice — a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the league's top goal scorer — he enters tonight's All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio, with a small national profile. He's not even one of the four players on the cover of the game program.

Sure, Stamkos, a Markham, Ontario, native, is huge in Canada, with endorsement deals with several high-end companies, including Nike. But as the league continues to push the likes of the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin and the Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews, Stamkos flies under the radar.

"Promoting a guy like Stamkos is absolutely what (the NHL) should be doing," said Jon Greenberg, executive editor of Team Marketing Report. "They don't need to promote … Toews. They need to promote guys in other markets.

"The hockey diehards know who (Stamkos) is. He's a star. As far as nationally, any man on the street can name LeBron James. Diehard sports fans know Toews, Crosby or (the Blackhawks' Patrick) Kane. I don't know if Stamkos has any national name recognition."

Part of the reason is the market Stamkos plays in. Tampa Bay has just five nationally televised games on the NBC Sports Network this season; the Penguins (with Crosby) have 19. Even the Sabres, the worst team in the league, have 10.

Jennings said the NHL promotes Stamkos in a myriad of ways, from putting his highlights on a "sizzle reel" for potential marketing partners, to putting a large photo of him on the outside of Nationwide Arena for the All-Star Game.

But most analysts, including NBCSN's Pierre McGuire, say the only way for Stamkos to elevate his national cache is to perform in the playoffs. Stamkos has been in the postseason just twice in his first six seasons.

"I think everyone in the league knows how good Steven Stamkos is," said Craig Button of Canada's TSN TV network. "The next step for Steven is, if you want to get onto that platform with the Toews and Crosbys … it's going to require him to be in the playoffs."

•••

Though the Tampa Bay area market is the 14th largest in the latest Nielsen measure of TV audiences, it's not a traditional hockey hotbed.

"Tampa is not going to move any needles nationally," said Greenberg of the Team Marketing Report. "You've got to overcome that a little bit."

Cary Kaplan, president of Cosmos Sports Marketing in Ontario, said though Stamkos is popular in Canada, he plays only a few games in Toronto, the country's largest city, each year.

"If he played for the Maple Leafs," Kaplan said, "he may be bigger than Sidney Crosby."

As for the Lightning's low number of national TV games, NBCSN's McGuire said the league's broadcast partner is "equal opportunity" but other teams, such as the Flyers, Bruins and Sabres, play in markets with a lot of "rivalry-type situations."

"Outside of the Panthers, tell me who Tampa Bay's rival is," McGuire said.

The NHL's Jennings said the teams with more NBCSN appearances naturally receive more promotional opportunities. Teams also get more of those opportunities by playing in the league's outdoor games, including the annual New Year's Day Winter Classic. The Lightning has yet to participate in any outdoor game.

"You might see NBC take Ovechkin and do a lot of promotion around (the Winter Classic), so it might look like he's getting a lot of play," Jennings said. "He's a guy that the league does market behind, as is Crosby and Toews and Kane. The good news from the league perspective: We love all 30 clubs and all our players equally."

That being said, Jennings acknowledges, "When you're in a nontraditional market, there's no doubt you have to work harder than if you're in an Original Six market (Boston, New York, Toronto, Detroit, Montreal, Chicago)."

One way for players to force themselves onto the national stage is through playoff success. Stamkos made a run to the Eastern Conference final with the Lightning in 2011, but Tampa Bay was swept last season by Montreal in the first round. Also, McGuire said Stamkos lost an opportunity by not being able to play for Canada in last year's Olympics because of a broken leg.

"You look at Crosby, you look at Toews, both of them have been to a Stanley Cup finals," McGuire said. "They've been deep in the playoffs, had Olympic success. … I think Steven, with his team this year, if he can stay healthy and go deep, I think people will start to recognize him for being a truly great personality and one of the truly great players in this league."

•••

It's not like Stamkos is a small fish in a big pond.

His jersey sales ranked 16th in 2013-14, the Sports Business Journal said. Stamkos has corporate partners that include Nike, Coca-Cola/Powerade, hockey equipment maker Bauer, Canadian Tire and Canadian sports equipment maker Sport Chek, though his off-ice earnings fall far behind those of Crosby, the NHL leader, who makes $4.5 million in endorsements in 2014-15, Forbes says. Ovechkin is the only other NHL player to make $1.5 million, it says.

But Stamkos' popularity is growing among 18- to 34-year-olds. In a survey of more than 1,400 so-called millennials by 120 Sports, a digital broadcast network, Stamkos ranked No. 29 among all athletes, ahead of Crosby, Ovechkin, Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods, and six spots behind LeBron James.

"That's impressive," Greenberg said. "That's the market you want to hit. It's the up-and-coming fan in their 20s."

Jennings said the NHL will continue to find ways to integrate Stamkos into the its marketing. "He's a guy that is absolutely on our list … a guy you want to promote," Jennings said. "Steven is so well deserving."

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