Browning eager to harness passion of NHL fans

Browning eager to harness passion of NHL fans

By Ian Thomas, Staff Writer


Heidi Browning
Executive vice president, chief marketing officer, NHL

Joining the NHL from music streaming platform Pandora last September, Heidi Browning had the opportunity to visit every team across the league these last 12 months, meeting with owners, team executives and staff to hear what she as the new CMO and the league could improve and build upon.

But rather than sit in the owners’ boxes for the games that often followed, she made it a point to find random seats in the crowd, questioning fans around her to hear what they loved about the NHL, how the league could better connect with them. Often, she never revealed who she was, presenting herself as someone who was curious about the bond they had with the sport.

“Coming into this role, I knew the fans of the NHL were passionate and that there was a tribal bond with the game of hockey, but I didn’t know how intense that passion really was — it’s truly incredible,” she said.

It’s now on Browning to harness that passion into more revenue and viewers for the league and its clubs.

“I think the biggest opportunities here at the league are around marketing, data marketing and social media,” said Browning, who previously was the senior vice president of strategic solutions at Pandora. “All marketers are trying to figure out how can they deepen their engagement with their fans and customers. Everything our fans do shows us they want to have deeper connections with the league and the teams.”

On social media in particular, Browning said the league took much of last year to analyze its approach, looking at its content and how fans were sharing it. While the assumption was that highlights or incredible goals might perform the best, unique fan moments resonated the most. The league’s top-performing social post last season was a clip of a young fan in Montreal who was jubilant after a player tossed him a puck. The post reached more than 85.5 million people, Browning said.

“We’ve done a lot of research and focus groups recently to try to best understand the attitudes of younger generations about sports and hockey in general, and what we can do to entice casual fans to watch and attend more hockey games,” she said. “The core of that group says they want to know more about the players, about their lives off the ice and what has inspired them in their lives.”

To try to provide that human look at the league, the NHL has expanded its real-time correspondent program, which has two staffers attend all league games searching to capture those off-the-ice moments. The program is similar to the one used by MLB. It also is working more closely with teams around storytelling to create content that is engaging, as well as helping to better elevate local stories to the national level. The league, alongside the NHL Players’ Association, also presented a more impassioned pitch to rookies at their orientation camp this summer, showcasing how important it is to connect with fans and how that platform can allow players to share all the good they do off the ice.

In addition, Browning is overseeing a project to centralize the fan data that has been collected by the league and teams, something that has never been done before, as well as apply new technologies and artificial intelligence to mine that trove of information, not unlike some of the ways Pandora uses its data. She is also tasked with the league’s environmental and social responsibility initiatives such as Hockey Fights Cancer and NHL Green, and being based in California, she is viewed as the league’s direct link to Silicon Valley.

“Our ultimate goal is to serve our avid fans, but also move more into the minds of casual fans,” she said. “Seeing how connected our fans are to their team, I think the most important thing we can do is just listen to them.”