NHL Season Preview 2011

The National Hockey League has never been on stronger ice in the United States.

Not only did the NHL post its fifth consecutive year of record revenues, but television partners at NBC and cabler Versus saw ratings increase 84% over the past four years, including record audiences for the Stanley Cup Finals and the league’s marquee midseason game, the Winter Classic.

So even with a serious bid from ESPN on the table, the NHL opted to renew and expand its successful relationship with the Peacock via a 10-year deal worth a reported $2 billion that begins this season, which started Oct. 6 with the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins hosting the Philadelphia Flyers on Versus.

NHL chief operating officer John Collins says there were many reasons for signing with NBC, chief among them being the network’s commitment to helping the sport grow its appeal and revenues at the national level. The NHL, while still a distant fourth behind the professional leagues of football, baseball and basketball in popularity, has seen overall revenues rise from $2.2 billion to $3 billion since the 2004-05 lockout — which washed away the entire season — with a lot of that increase attributable to the NHL’s national revenues (those generated at the league, not team, level), which have grown by 140% in the last five years.

“NBC and Comcast have been a very important part of that growth,” Collins says.

The deal will see NBC and Versus, set to be rebranded Jan. 2 as NBC Sports Network, air 100 regular-season games (12 of them on NBC — with both numbers similar to last year), including special events such as the Winter Classic (played outdoors in a rink set up at a baseball or football stadium), the All-Star Game and a new marquee (indoor) game set for the Friday after Thanksgiving, marking the start of the broadcast network’s coverage for the season. The pact also states that, for the first time, all Stanley Cup playoff games will be aired nationally, either on NBC, NBC Sports Network or a Peacock-owned net such as MSNBC or CNBC, though most of the additional contests will appear on the cable networks.

Local rights holders, however, will still air games in the first round of the playoffs.

Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and Versus, says the audience for hockey and NBC’s ability to use its resources to reach them, make for a strong fit, and the demo is one the network is looking to attract.

“They’re affluent, educated and predominantly men. It’s an audience that advertisers want to reach, because it’s not that easy to get them,” says Miller.

Making it easy for marketers and advertisers to reach that aud led the NHL and NBC to forge a second pact under which they will pool their media sales. NBC’s sales group will represent the NHL for ad sales for every platform — mobile, online and traditional broadcast.

Key to building that demographic is the appeal of the game itself, which has been tweaked with rule changes that emphasize speed and are designed to increase scoring.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a longtime hockey fan who informally consults with the league on ways to better promote the sport, says the NHL has benefited from NBC’s improved presentation of hockey on TV.

“Television is something in the past that has not served (hockey) as well as it should,” Bruckheimer says.

Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of AEG Worldwide and an exec of the AEG-owned Los Angeles Kings, says compelling storylines centered around stars such as Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (who remains on the sideline due to a concussion), Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have helped the NHL win over new fans.

“The fact that teams from New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area (San Jose) are going to compete for the Stanley Cup is a very good story for the league, and it certainly has been a driver for getting additional fans and winning people over,” he says.

Certainly having the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks heightened viewer interest, and the seventh and deciding game (won by the Bruins) drew 8.6 million viewers and a 14 share in key male demos — making it the top show of that June night and the largest hockey aud in the States in 37 years.

The NHL deal is one of the first since the NBC-Comcast merger created a $30 billion media giant. Since then, lengthy and lucrative rights deals have become the norm, such as the Pac-12’s $2.7 billion deal with ESPN and NBC’s $4.4 billion,12-year pact for the Olympics.

Both Collins and Miller say the advantage of a long-term deal is that it brings certainty to more than just costs. The NHL knows it has a reliable platform, and NBC knows it has popular sports content for its channels.

NHL SEASON PREVIEW 2011
NBC deal raises NHL’s game | NHL embraces digital offerings | Winter Classic a new outdoor tradition

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