The Instagram followings of the NHL’s top three most popular players—Alex Ovechkin (1.6 million), P.K. Subban (1 million) and Connor McDavid (884k)—are, combined, fewer than the almost 4.2 million followers LeBron James added on the platform just this summer during the NBA’s bubble season. The face of the NBA’s posts reach nearly 75 million Instagram users today, while Ovechkin has 4.2 million followers combined across all social media platforms. And yet—those numbers are still far higher than they were a few years ago for hockey’s stars.
While the small pool of established stars still occupy the largest slice of the league’s social media pie, the young faces of the sport are ushering in a new era of exposure and are on track to outpace their predecessors. The 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, selected just last month, already has 116,000 Instagram followers. That’s before he’s even stepped on the ice for his NHL debut. 2019’s top overall pick Jack Hughes came into the league with just over 100,000 followers, and after one year with the New Jersey Devils, the 19-year-old boasts 322,000. Each of 2018’s top three picks has six-digit followings. Those audiences bring increasing opportunity.
“There’s been a lot of good marketing momentum we didn’t have five-plus years ago [partly because] of the league putting more of a focus on younger players,” said Jen Entin, CAA Sports’ head of hockey marketing and client management. “There are NHL legends like Wayne Gretzky who still have a big presence in the sport, but more and more you’re seeing young players as the face of a campaign, a series or a special event. These young players are more engaged on social media with their fans, a little bit more open, and becoming more relevant right now.”
Today’s Gen Z rookies were born into social media; the sport’s shift into the space at least partially a natural evolution. There are also cultural barriers to consider that explain NHL players’ slower adoption of social media savvy compared to their professional athlete counterparts. Hockey has historically been a more buttoned-up sport, with player personalities coming out in brawls on the ice instead of on social media platforms. The league also wasn’t as active as say the NBA (which has long led the way in this realm) in supporting its players off-court crusades until more recently, nor does hockey have the cultural hold in the U.S. that a league like the NFL does. There are also a much larger number of foreign-born NHL players than the other major U.S. sports leagues boasts. Ovechkin, for example, shares much of his personal content on social media in Russian, some of which becomes inaccessible to his American fans.
While the league is encouraging players to cultivate followings through their own initiatives, many have taken it upon themselves, and well before they become pros. Relevancy is currency in today’s climate. Deal flow is still tied to marketability, but marketability is increasingly tied to personality as opposed to actual play—not to say that on-ice performance isn’t still paramount for longevity’s sake. But as Jeff Jackson, co-head of Wasserman’s hockey division, puts it: “It used to be that brands would really want to get an athlete that was extremely well-known in a particular market and then do billboards or TV commercials or whatever it was to try to activate. Now that’s not nearly as important as the data that you get from social media engagements and reach. If you have a player that has a lot of engagement, then they’re that much more marketable.”
But hockey culture wasn’t always conducive to the kind of public sharing needed to generate substantial engagement. NFL and NBA players have long been marketing their off-field or off-court lives on social media, a habit less common in the NHL—until now.
“With Instagram you’re putting yourself out there—your personality, life, habits. Hockey players typically in the past have been hesitant to do that. Someone like Sidney Crosby turns into the top player in the league for a number of years and didn’t have any social media accounts for the longest time,” Jackson said. “Kids now who are coming up, like Quinton [Byfield], who just turned 18, have been living on Snapchat, Instagram and all these platforms for years. They’re comfortable showing their personalities and using social media in a business sense.”
As this generational shift continues and hockey begins to loosen its practices, agents expect the proliferation of business opportunities available to the sport’s athletes to continue. It’s a trend that Jackson, whose clients include McDavid and Byfield (the L.A. Kings’ 2020 first round draft pick), says has “changed a lot in the last number of years, but particularly in the last couple years.”
Young players have a better understanding of how to embrace social media more as a tool for branding. The result, as Entin explains it, has been an influx of opportunities with brands that don’t traditionally operate in the hockey space or within major hockey markets—some of which are growing themselves. As the NHL works to expand its own domestic and global audience (with the exception of 2020—a weird year for both in-person attendance and live sports viewership—the Stanley Cup television audience has grown year-over-year since a drop in 2016), it has slowly grown in certain markets like Raleigh, N.C., home of the Carolina Hurricanes. Markets like Chicago and Montreal have retained their place atop the attendance board, but broader interest in the sport is increasing at the same time that regional boundaries are blurring when it comes to marketing or endorsement deals.
“Some markets are just better for player marketing than others, but if players are willing to engage with their audience via social media, that doesn’t matter as much anymore,” Entin added.
“Historically, fans’ perception of who the athlete is as a person was largely confined to on-ice performance and appearances for traditional media outlets,” said Chris Feniak, director of marketing and business development at Newport Sports Management, which represents more than 100 active NHL players. “That really has shifted with social media and opened up opportunities for a much larger group of players. This has aligned well with a key shift in how brands [and] advertisers are strategizing. Branded content and storytelling has become critical in how advertisers speak to consumers. If the message or DNA of the brand aligns well with an athlete’s personal story or what they stand for, there becomes this unique impactful opportunity to work together.”
Athletes aren’t the only ones feeling the windfall. Companies connected to the hockey space like UpperDeck, the NHL’s exclusive trading card manufacturer, are also reaping the benefits. The entire collectible and memorabilia industry spiked during the pandemic, but while the company declined to disclose specifics, it did say the pace of purchasing hockey collectibles was escalating even prior.
“We’ve seen a tremendous uptick in interest in hockey and collecting hockey that’s grown over the last several years—since Connor McDavid came into the league in 2015 is really the span we’ve seen a pretty significant spike,” said Mike Phillips, UpperDeck’s executive VP of sales and marketing.
Much of the trading card industry is driven by rookies—each year’s crop of talent determining demand, at least in the beginning. Social media has amplified the audience each rookie already has before entering the league, which benefits brands like UpperDeck. “This upcoming season is a perfect example of a massive uptick because of the excitement around this draft class that’s coming into the NHL,” Phillips said. “And it doesn’t hurt that the NHL is doing an unbelievable job of marketing their sport.”