In Depth

NHL Attains Goal

Attendance, Ratings Gains Reflect Popularity

For all the bashing the National Hockey League has taken in recent years for declining ratings and its departure from ESPN, the league is currently on a proverbial roll heading into this week’s All-Star Game on Versus.

The NHL scored its best regular-season ratings in more than a decade with NBC’s New Year’s telecast of the NHL Winter Classic. Also, ratings for games on Versus are up by double digits, the NHL Network successfully launched in the U.S. last fall, game attendance continues to stay strong and merchandise sales soared 44% in December compared to year-ago purchases.

In addition, NBC began its third broadcast season with the league last weekend as the Bruins squared off against the Rangers.

“With 53 million fans and a $2.4 billion business, it’s safe to say that our fans love hockey as much as NFL fans love football,” said John Collins, senior executive VP of business and media for the NHL. “We’ve been promoting in ways that we haven’t promoted in the past, and we’d like to think that the momentum will continue.”

Mr. Collins noted the league had taken a strategic approach to rebuilding the brand after television ratings for the sport tumbled following the 2004 ownership lockout that lasted for 310 days and cost the NHL a full season.

“The challenge for us is that in the business that we’re in, the biggest metric is the national television rating, and that’s why we’ve seen people making presumptions about our league,” Mr. Collins said. “But in reality, given the way the industry is and the way technology is fragmenting the audience, we are being more aggressive with building scale in the digital platform, with the exception of big-scale events such as the Winter Classic, which truly demonstrated how effective NBC can be as a national marketing partner.”

“We and the NHL both knew when they agreed to a deal with us that there would be a lot of critics,” said Gavin Harvey, president of Versus. “We stunned the sports world together, but what we admire about the NHL is that we share a vision of what the sport could become, and now the critics are silent and only the people who refuse to accept reality are complaining.”

Mr. Collins notes that a repeat of the Winter Classic, which scored a 2.6 overnight rating and a 5 share on New Year’s Day and was the first U.S. outdoor game in NHL history, warranted “a hard look at doing it again next year, as our corporate and business partners as well as sponsors and licensees throughout the U.S. and Canada really liked the concept.”

NBC is in its third season as the network broadcast partner of the NHL, with the NHL now offering national in lieu of regional games as well as flexible scheduling for NBC’s nine regular-season dates, allowing the network to select from up to four games on Sunday afternoons.

All NBC regular-season games will be broadcast on Sundays for the first time and all games will be presented in high definition. NBC will broadcast postseason games on select Saturdays and Sundays, and Games 3-7 of the Stanley Cup Final in prime time.

“We were thrilled with the success of the outdoor game and are hopeful we can carry some of that momentum to the ‘NBC Game of the Week,’” said Brian Walker, senior director of corporate communications at NBC Sports. “There are a lot of positive markers for the NHL and we’re bullish on the league’s future.”

On the digital stage, the league will give NHL.com an overhaul in April for the playoffs.

“Given the way we think our fan base is underserved in the U.S., you’ll see a complete transformation of how the league is going to be using the site,” Mr. Collins said. “As we build scale and drive revenue, the new broadband site will feature a Flash-enabled player, as well as a totally different functionality and original broadband programming. That’s just one step toward breaking some of our viewers’ past habits of only watching when their favorite team is playing.”

Versus is seeing a 50% ratings spike so far this season, and had the channel’s highest-rated regular-season game ever on Dec. 11, with a 0.5 rating. While that number is still off par from pre-lockout days, the growth in the numbers reverses a downward trend seen by the sport in recent years.

Versus has seen demo growth in the sport as well, with jumps of 10% among men 18 to 34, 34% among men 18 to 49 and 51% among men 25 to 54. With the All-Star Game set for Sunday, Jan. 27, Mr. Harvey plans to maintain the momentum at the event through its HD telecast, which he feels is one reason fans are rediscovering the sport.

“With all the games in HD now, fans are able to get more visual information in a game that’s literally meant for HD,” Mr. Harvey said. “As HD becomes more penetrated and widely accepted, it’s created a tailwind that helps us reach the fans.”

During the All-Star weekend’s telecasts, Versus will implement HiMotion super-slo-mo replays using a system that shoots at 300 frames per second, compared to 30 frames per second of standard cameras. The equipment will offer viewers replays that can even show the rotation of the puck during a shot. Also enhancing coverage will be in-net goal cameras, which offer an ice-level look at the action, and extra reporters to add perspective from both ice level and the locker rooms.

The channel will be installing microphones and ear pieces on players during the All-Star Game on Sunday. The players will use the earpieces and microphones for the first time on Saturday night so the announcers can interact with them while they compete in the SuperSkills Competition.

“In television, you need moments and have to grab people by the collar to look at us,” said Mr. Harvey. “The All Star game is one of those moments and a national opportunity for the sport to show off a spectacular game.”

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