It was a year that saw Jonathan Toews lift the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby, Roberto Luongo and Patrick Kane play prominent roles in the Olympic final—one of the most-watched hockey games in history.
Yet when EA Sports decided in 2010 to add a new video game title to its successful hockey franchise it didn’t call on any of today’s stars.
EA had already opted for Toews to front “NHL 11” while Ryan Kesler had been tabbed for rival 2K Sports’ “NHL 2K11.”
But it chose Wayne Gretzky to represent “NHL Slapshot” for the Nintendo Wii even though it’s been more than a decade since he played his last NHL game.
Going Gretzky still makes good business sense.
“We wanted this to be a top-10 game in Canada and U.S. hockey hotbeds,” said David Le, director of marketing for EA Sports NHL. “We needed to pick somebody who still had mass appeal with (15- to 30-year-olds) and kind of great ability to break through from a PR perspective, and somebody who really embodied who we felt the core consumer was—which is more like that guy who’s got a couple kids and probably owns a Nintendo Wii and wants to get up off the couch and play games with his kid.
“That’s where Wayne just made a ton of sense.”
It’s a conclusion that companies continue to arrive at even though Gretzky has transitioned into middle age—he turns 50 on Wednesday—and is currently without an official tie to the NHL.
Already hockey’s scoring king, No. 99 continues to rack up big numbers in the corporate world. In fact, the demand is so strong that Gretzky has the luxury of “picking and choosing” his deals, according to industry insider Brian Cooper.
“I’ve been sitting on the sidelines for 30 years watching this brand and it’s amazing,” said Cooper, a former Gretzky business partner and current CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group. “I’m telling you, there is no stronger brand in Canadians’ minds. He just did a deal with Skechers and here he is 50 years old.
“Still when people think of the sport of hockey worldwide, it’s that name that comes out.”
Gretzky’s sponsorship deal with the Skechers shoe company was announced earlier this month. He reached agreements with EA Sports and TD Bank last year and continues to enjoy long-standing relationships with Ford and Samsung.
“These are not unknown brands,” said Cooper. “These are not brands looking to break out.”
The Great One also works with Breitling watches, Bigelow Teas and is involved with a variety of business interests carrying his name—including a winery, Toronto-based restaurant and an annual fantasy camp in Las Vegas.
Serving as a pitchman comes as naturally to him as scoring goals. Gretzky was still a teenager when he signed a major deal with Mr. Big chocolate bars and in the 30-plus years since he’s helped sell everything from Budweiser beer to Upper Deck trading cards to Domino’s pizza.
“He is one of the most iconic, endurable brands ever,” said Cooper. “I can’t think of another brand like it. There are some great, great Canadians, but none of them have ever turned into a commercial brand.
“He is a living, breathing commercial brand.”
No one in hockey comes close to matching his reach. That includes Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, widely considered the current faces of the NHL.
According to this year’s Sports Q Scores list—which measures the marketability of athletes—Gretzky was tops among hockey players with a positive score of 33 per cent. That put him ahead of Ryan Miller (31), Henrik Zetterberg (28), Crosby (24) and Ovechkin (23).
Cooper believes Gretzky’s brand received a major boost during the Vancouver Olympics, where he lit the cauldron during the opening ceremony and was omnipresent throughout.
“He owned the Olympics,” said Cooper. “The (prime minister) was smart enough to realize, `I’m going to sit with this guy at every hockey game.’ That was brand association.
“If there’s a feel-good brand in this country that every politician could sit next to, believe me, it was him.”
The main reason behind Gretzkys continued success seems to be quite simple—he gives company’s good value for what they pay for.
Gretzky, who has been involved in video games in the past, brought along two of his kids for the EA Sports photo shoot and they ended up being included in some of the packaging and advertising. Le was impressed by how “authentic” the hockey star seemed and the fact he genuinely seemed interested in the video game.
The company couldn’t have chosen a better pitchman.
“Wayne’s cache and his ability to genuinely appeal to a pretty broad audience (was important),” said Le. “His kind of genuine involvement in the game and just in general in promoting the sport as well were absolutely huge communication pieces that we candidly wouldn’t have gotten with anyone else on the cover.
“I’ve been here now for three years and worked at Nintendo for seven (years) and I would put this right up at the top of one of the best projects that I’ve ever worked on.”
With those kind of reviews, there’s no reason to expect Gretzky’s brand to fade away any time soon. When he hung up his skates back in 1999, few would have guessed he’d still be going so strong today.
“He’s just done a good job of being Wayne,” said Cooper. “To be doing deals at 50—that’s shocking.”