NHL heads to playoffs on high note

League ad, corporate communities step up commitment

As the race for the Stanley Cup begins this week, the National Hockey League has firmed up its relationship with the ad community and viewing audience.

Statistics released for the just-concluded regular season show that corporate sponsorship was up 20%, ad spending rose 37% and ratings for both NBC and sports cabler Versus also saw increases. Through its digital platforms, the league also made strong inroads with fans.

“How did we get Madison Avenue to respond? By creating a new path that allow marketers to reach a hockey demo that’s more techno-savvy and younger than other sports,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins told Daily Variety.

Although ratings for exclusive telecasts on Versus were up 29%, the league took a big hit this season when the cabler got into a nasty carriage battle with DirecTV and was taken off the satellite provider’s lineup for several months. Millions of fans who have DirecTV missed nearly the entire season because of the dispute.

NBC continued to air a Game of the Week — the Peacock and the NHL split ad revenue — and will have rights to weekend games throughout the playoffs while Versus takes the remainder of the playoffs. The league’s deals with both Versus and NBC have one year remaining and the NHL will listen to offers from ESPN — the sports behemoth had a pact with the league before Versus took over — and may want to return to covering games if the price is right.

NBC’s coverage of the recent Winter Olympics helped promote hockey this season, especially the gold medal game between Canada and the United States that clearly drew the attention of the occasional fan. Also, the Jan. 1 Winter Classic between the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins from Fenway Park earned a healthy best 3.7 rating and was one of the most watched regular season games in 35 years.

Collins said another reason the league fared well this year is that teams in traditional hockey cities — Chicago, Detroit, Boston — are playoff bound and rising stars such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are drawing the more casual viewer into the game.

“The big-market buzz is important to the advertising community, but what’s really resonating is the appeal of the players,” Collins said. “This crop of young stars are unlike any time we’ve seen in the league’s history and is creating a reawakening of great teams in great markets.”

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