Blue Jackets exec shoots, scores as team pitchman

Tim Feran, The Columbus Dispatch

August 15, 2013

John Davidson sat in the Columbus Blue Jackets locker room recently and talked about the team's new division ("it's fan-friendly"), about how tough the sport is and how much he loves hockey and its history.

The team's president of hockey operations was informal, warm and genuine, but he wasn't shooting the breeze with players or coaches. He was shooting the latest in a series of television commercials that are part of the NHL team's new marketing campaign.

And, in large part because of Davidson's skills as a broadcaster, the marketing campaign is already working well, said John Browne, the Blue Jackets' chief marketing officer.

"John speaks with such credibility, such honesty, the way he connects with people is wonderful," Browne said. "He's money."

Lots of money. The Blue Jackets have sold almost 1,600 new full-season tickets or their equivalent, compared with a little more than 600 two years ago at the same time. (The two-year span is a better indicator than using last year's shortened season.) And total full-season tickets or equivalents this year number almost 8,100 compared with almost 7,300 at this time in 2011, Browne said.

"We've done a series of events with smaller groups, too, and, whether it's the players or the coach or John, when they talk to fans, it's very authentic," Browne said. "People see that, and they connect - and, as a result, ticket sales have been very good, even in the middle of July, when it's 85 degrees and you're not thinking about hockey."

The marketing campaign came about when the team made a run at the playoffs last season, falling just short. Management sensed an opportunity to connect with fans and contacted local marketing agency treetree, which focuses on special projects.

"We sat down and asked, 'How do we capitalize on this?'" Browne said. "Hockey is such a game of passion - how do we convey that?"

Tiffany Wise, chief creative officer at the marketing agency, said, "As we talked to some key stakeholders, some insights came up. They wanted a more image-based, more emotional campaign - emotional, where in the past it was a promotional campaign."

While there was nothing wrong with the old campaigns, Browne, Wise and the rest of the group realized that they would be wasting a major asset if they simply stuck with a standard issue "buy tickets now" campaign.

Davidson - who came to Columbus in October- had spent decades as an on-air analyst for NBC, ABC, ESPN, Fox, MSG Network and the Winter Olympics and Stanley Cup broadcasts. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a broadcaster.

They agreed that having Davidson talk about his passion for the game could set the tone for the image they wanted to present.

"It's a very conversational tone," Wise said. "This man was so poised, he needed very little direction. He was so good, and such a kind man as well. He makes you stop, he makes you listen. He's not talking at you, he's talking with you. He makes you feel part of the team."

The shift in tone toward emotion and away from straight-ahead sales is "really smart," said Deborah Mitchell, a professor of marketing at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.

"People in Columbus have demonstrated they can form very strong emotional ties to a sports team- Buckeyes are a prime example," Mitchell said. "So the capacity is there. What they've done is changed from straight, 'Let's get people to buy,' to building a relationship. There's lots of research that has shown if you create relationships with consumers, they're more loyal to the brand, and they end up spending more. So, this marketing campaign, it's got legs."

Davidson deflects the praise as readily as he once swatted away slap shots during his days as a goalie with the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers.

"Anything to do the right thing for the club, for the team," he said in his office after shooting the commercial. "Besides, it's easy, it's relaxing. It's fun thinking about the history of the game, going back in time and remembering different things. I remember doing that Miller Lite commercial with Tony Esposito in the '80s and it was 105 degrees in the city and we had to do about 68 takes. Now that was work."

Davidson's team-first attitude and laid-back demeanor are a perfect fit for central Ohio, Mitchell said.

"He's great. It's just like back in the day with Wendy's and Dave Thomas," she said. "People want to listen to him. They want to like him. That's money in the bank, that's gold. He's a great asset that they're utilizing very well."

The marketing campaign started in April and will evolve, with some commercials using coach Todd Richards and others using players as the season goes on.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Browne said, "but we're very excited where we're headed."

Davidson grinned. "This franchise doesn't sit still," he said.