The Connor McDavid brand won’t truly gain traction until the Oilers start winning, forcing NBC and the U.S. fan to pay attention.
If Connor McDavid is as good as an Edmonton Oilers sophomore as he was as a rookie and plays an 82-game season, he’ll put up 88 points in 2016-17. And if NHL scoring stays at about the same pace as it did last season, that would give him the Hockey Reference adjusted equivalent of a 98-point season. That’s pushing the boundaries of the same stratosphere as the likes of Eric Lindros, Alex Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby in their sophomore seasons.
And that’s if McDavid’s only as good as he was in 2015-16, when his season was truncated to 45 games (48 points) by a shoulder injury. If he’s better, as THN’s annual Fantasy Pool Guide suggests he will be – we have him scoring 96 points in 2016-17 – that will put him right in the midst of that group of superstars.
In Canada, McDavid has been a part of the hockey world’s consciousness since he was 14, so most people here don’t flinch much when they see an ad featuring McDavid fishing off a dock with a talking Penguin in a television commercial for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Just 19 and with no NHL playoff games on his resume, McDavid already has partnerships with CCM, Canadian Tire and Biosteel, which have added at least $1.5 million in endorsement money to McDavid’s portfolio, according to sports marketing expert Brian Cooper.
But when it comes to universal appeal, McDavid has a long way to go before he enters the consciousness of the casual American hockey fan. It doesn’t help that neither McDavid nor the Oilers are scheduled to appear on one NBC game this season. When it comes to generating the highest viewership levels possible, the formula for NBC Sports is a combination of big markets, winning records and attractive matchups. And star power. The Oilers possess just one of those in McDavid.
That doesn’t mean the Oilers will never appear on NBC, but the network will need to see something more than a tease from McDavid and Oilers. “As with any team, the Oilers can play their way onto our schedule,” an NBC spokesperson said in an email to THN. “As they get more competitive, they’ll see more airtime.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Brian Cooper, the president and CEO of S&E Sponsorship, which represented a corporate client in negotiations with McDavid. In Canada, McDavid has already lived up to the hype that was being generated for the three years prior to him being drafted first overall in 2015.
“You can’t talk about potential, you have to talk about their accomplishments,” Cooper said. “And he doesn’t have an accomplishment yet. One of my clients negotiated a contract with him and, while there was a lot of appeal, I wasn’t willing to pay for potential. There was a base we were willing to pay potential on, but it’s heavy on performance.”
And as terrific as McDavid was last season, he did not move the needle for the Oilers, a team that was only slightly better with him (18-24-3 for a .433 points percentage) than it was when he was injured (13-19-5, .419). Philadelphia defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who finished ahead of McDavid in voting for the Calder Trophy, played for a team that was 34-19-11 with him in the lineup and 7-8-3 when he was in the minors to start the season and later injured. Gostisbehere had such a positive impact on the Flyers that they might not have made the playoffs without him.
So the question remains, if McDavid ultimately becomes what much of the hockey world thinks he will become, which is the best player in the world, can he make that imprint in both Canada and the U.S. playing for a smaller-market, Mountain Time Zone-based team such as the Oilers?
Gretzky did make inroads in that area, but he didn’t truly hit the big-time in terms of his brand until he was traded to Los Angeles. It was then that he became a transcendental figure.
“No doubt about it,” Cooper said of McDavid’s chances of increasing his brand in Edmonton. “Because I’ll tell you what will happen. The NHL will then put its support behind him. He would be their shining star, so you’re going to make sure NBC covers him as well as any of the jewel events the NHL has like the All-Star Game and the NHL Awards.”
With McDavid’s Oilers moving into a new arena and a renewed enthusiasm for the roster and its potential, there is a lot to anticipate. But now is time for action. Not only must McDavid be otherworldly, the Oilers will have to hold up their end of the bargain and become a contending team. Only then will McDavid begin to become the face of the NHL.