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Hockey, Baseball Leagues Spring Global Plans

Now that football season has ended in America, is the rest of the world ready for some hockey and baseball? Direct marketers with the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball hope so as they look to take advantage of their star athletes appearing on the international stage during the next two months.

The NHL mails its annual spring catalog to 650,000 North American households this week. Two pages are aimed at Winter Olympics hockey (or “ishockey” in Danish) fans rooting for either their nation's team or favorite NHL players.

The “International Hockey” section features variations of about a dozen items adorned by the logos of the U.S. and Canadian teams. Copy under the images informs the reader that the styles also are branded for fans of Russia, Sweden and Czech Republic, among others, at www.shop.nhl.com. Online, the International Hockey section has 60 products, including higher-end items such as an official “Team Czech” Jacquard hockey scarf or a puck autographed by Vladislav Tretiak from the legendary 1972 Soviet squad.

The NHL will depend partly on the worldwide TV publicity that the tourney generates in order to drive new overseas prospects to the site. However, the league says it already has a sizable, loyal audience of European score-checkers and newsreaders at www.nhl.com, where it will use banner ads to induce click-through sales at the shopping site.

“We try to link everything together to get an end result of people going to the online store to buy the product when the Olympics become top of mind and they start thinking about their favorite team or player,” said Andrew Edelson, director of strategic development at NHL ICE, New York.

An e-mail went last week to 500,000 past customers to support the International Hockey pages at the Web site as well as in the catalog. A second e-mail goes out Feb. 22 with a tighter focus as the tournament winds down to the last few rounds.

“We will customize the upcoming e-mail campaign's products according to the players that perform well and the teams that make the quarterfinals,” Edelson said. “To promote International Hockey, we are also using banner ads across our network of NHL teams and putting contextual links in all of our Olympic-related online stories.”

The NHL has rebounded well this year after a labor dispute canceled last season. Since dropping the puck again in September, arena crowds typically have broken records, and the league has seen online and catalog average order sizes climb from the low $60s to the $80s.

However, bad PR struck again last week when allegations surfaced of a nationwide gambling ring involving at least one league assistant coach.

“Here you had a season with a loyal fan base coming back pretty heavily,” said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director and sports analyst at Pickett Advertising, San Francisco. “You got the excitement of the Olympics adding another positive dimension. And now, you've got this. The timing couldn't have been worse.”

Meanwhile, coming off a controversial season itself with the issue of steroids still hovering, Major League Baseball looks to get a better jump with next month's first-ever World Baseball Classic. The tournament features 16 international teams from several continents and more than 300 MLB players representing their home nations.

Last summer, MLB helped create the event in conjunction with the Switzerland-based International Baseball Federation. More recently, an ad appeared during the Super Bowl to promote the 17-day, multiple-site tournament and www.worldbaseballclassic.com, which is run by Major League Baseball Advanced Media, New York.

With the first pitch set for March 3, the league has begun offering country-specific jerseys featuring star players of various nationalities. For instance, viewers can order a Derek Jeter #2 USA jersey or an Albert Pujols #5 Dominican Republic jersey for $235 apiece. Less-expensive items also are available at the WBC site and at www.shop.mlb.com. In addition, the sites will make the nation-versus-nation games available via live and delayed videocasts.

“We'll be able to see what games the fans are watching,” said Noah Garden, senior vice president of e-commerce and sponsorships at MLBAM. “From that, we'll be able to target some different offers to them. If someone is watching the Korean game twice, obviously they are Korea fans and we'll know that. And then we can offer him or her items from the Korean team. After the fact, we will have a lot more information to mine the database for more targeted mailings or promotions in the future.”

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