Just as the Los Angeles Kings are in preparation to cross the Pacific Ocean to grow its brand and build partnerships as part of the NHL China Games, Liqui Moly, the automotive chemicals, oils and lubrications specialists, is vying to build a bridge across the Atlantic to become the first German oil brand to market itself in professional American athletics. As such, Liqui Moly will become the first company to build a sponsorship with all three AEG-owned hockey teams: the Kings, the Ontario Reign and Eisbären Berlin.
There’s a lot of corporate syntax involved here. Cross-marketing. Target groups. Sponsorship activation. Kings and Reign fans won’t be overly aware of the day-to-day orchestration of the marriage, which to this point has been most visible in the Liqui Moly dasher boards advertisements that have surfaced in Los Angeles and Ontario and will remain for the next three seasons.
For business endeavors, the partnership allows Liqui Moly additional recognition in the largest car market in the world.
“We entered that market a few years ago, but now we the push the pedal to the bottom and invest in brand increase, so it was a quite close idea to cooperate with a top sports club in the U.S., and that’s NHL.” Based on a strong relationship with Eisbären – the German word for polar bears – the company decided to expand more decisively into a United States market.
But more locally, this partnership relates to the strengthening consolidation of AEG executives between the company’s American and German interests, which will be at its most visible when Kings President Luc Robitaille and AEG Chief Operating Officer Kelly Cheeseman travel to Germany as part of the Eisbären Berlin Board of Directors with the Kings now overseeing all operations of the DEL club. Mike O’Connell, Los Angeles’ Senior Advisor to the General Manager/Development, will also aid in Berlin’s hockey operations efforts.
“They’ll probably be involved in our development camp here. It could be a possibility that we run one there for them as well,” O’Connell said. “Sit with the coaching staff and kind of tell them what we see, and have them tell us what they see.”
In hockey operations, the goals of the partnership surround returning the Eisbären back to a Championship-model franchise. Berlin won seven DEL titles in a nine-year span between 2005 and 2013. Because of the graduation of many prospects into more advanced stages of the professional game, and because, for instance, Los Angeles had only four draft picks last year, spots at development camp have been taken by German players in addition to the general camp invites and players on AHL contracts. Three Eisbären skaters took part at last year’s development camp.
“I think you’ll see different transactions going across the pond probably four to six times a year between different staff members,” Cheeseman said. “So the development camp we’re planning this summer in June or July, we’d like to have our strength and conditioning coaches, our trainers go over there and help them in addition to the development staff that’s coming over. In addition to that we’ve had obviously their coaches and some players coming in for our development camp so we’ll see more consistent exchanges.”
Berlin is coached by former Stanley Cup hero Uwe Krupp, who served as an on-ice instructor during Los Angeles’ 2015 development camp, which was also attended by several executives of DEL teams and a small handful of German reporters.
There probably aren’t going to be opportunities for Kings prospects to be loaned to Berlin, but there still exists the possibility for links between the Eisbären staff and players that have come through Los Angeles. A former defenseman for the ECHL’s Reign and Manchester Monarchs, former Kings farmhand Alex Roach totaled two assists in 21 games with Berlin this past season.
“I think probably the biggest example where you may see that opportunity, and it’s going to be as those opportunities arise, but we typically always have a goalie down in Manchester, and maybe this is a better league for a goalie to be in versus the ECHL, and that could be an opportunity for our staff in the most immediate future and then you see how things develop,” Cheeseman said.
For the organization, it’s also important to reinforce its ties in Berlin, where an L.A. Live-like entertainment center, Mercedes Platz, is under construction next to the Mercedes Benz Arena that the Eisbären play out of.
“[Anschutz has] been involved in the Berlin marathon, he’s run the Berlin marathon with his daughters before, so he has a lot of personal attachment to the marketplace,” Cheeseman said. “We’ve won a lot of championships there, and frankly, he just wants to make sure that we’re successful again and get that team back up to championship standards that we had for many years.”
So even if “corporate synergy” sounds as if it came straight from a board room of one of the skyscrapers towering over Staples Center, it’s certainly an accurate depiction of this particular business-minded thrust that AEG hopes can reestablish the success of its model German program while also strengthening relationships between the Kings and Reign and businesses that would love to use sports teams as a means of reaching a wider audience.
“It’s a great business opportunity to merge all three teams,” Robitaille said. “The one thing that AEG and our global partnership group has done really well is they’re really client friendly, they really make our partners are happy, they’re Kings fans, they understand what we stand for, which we’re always trying to be the best, and we want to have the same structure in Berlin, and in Ontario’s the same.
“You never know in sports. One year is good, one year is bad, but the one thing we always want is striving to be the best, and in Berlin they won seven championships out of nine years. They’ve slipped a little bit in the last few years, and we don’t want that to stay and the Reign have had really good success, and it’s the same here with the Kings. We’ve had sellouts after sellouts. This is one of those things where we can give a few companies an opportunity to expand their brand in those markets.”
Luc Robitaille, on his role on the board with Eisbären Berlin:
I think the biggest thing is to give the opportunity for the team to get back to the level that everyone expects them to be. I think in the past it’s no one’s fault where you’re, I think that it was really ran tight as a business but it wasn’t really run as much as a hockey team and we’re just going to go and help them run as a hockey team. And we just want to get Peter Lee there, who’s the CEO, and the opportunity for him to run the team the way he wants to run it. So it gives him an opportunity to win a championship. Look, our focus is always the Kings. It’s never gonna stop. So for us, we’re just on the board, and he’s going to come up to us with his budget, with his decision-making and we’re going to approve and we’re going to help him into building his business the way it should be.
Kelly Cheeseman, on what a typical fan might notice about the new partnership:
I think there will definitely be branding opportunities that we’ll continue to evaluate and develop, especially as the summer goes on. You know, all three teams are currently meeting to evaluate how we’re going to do do that. You’ll see probably a lot more opportunities, especially in Ontario and Berlin, of bringing the Kings logos in there like you’ve seen on affiliation nights before. So it’s a big part of it. We like to make sure all three teams have an opportunity in each of those markets.
Cheeseman, on serving on the board of Eisbären Berlin with Luc Robitaille:
Yeah, what was different before is really all we did was consult to them, give them some analysis and some business planning expectations, but we weren’t accountable to them and they weren’t accountable to us, so in this case they report directly to us, which creates a whole different level of expectation, of accountability especially, and also, there wasn’t as strong of a hockey connection. We were doing some development work out there with Mike O’Connell and his staff, but now we’re talking about how can we help the players, how can we help the scouting, how can we make sure that they have the resources to win.
Mike O’Connell, on any added responsibilities with the team in Germany:
We’ve changed our involvement with them. More of an affiliate now, we’re going to monitor a lot of the things they do along with the business side and they’re in the second round of the playoffs [Ed: Berlin was in the second round at the time of this interview; despite a losing regular season record, they advanced to the league semi-finals, where they lost to the eventual champion, EHC München.] and that’s just basically support. If they have some questions regarding the next year and what kind of players they’re looking for and the whole bit, well, then we’ll help them with this. That’s basically what it is right now. We’re a support role.