NHL preps for renegotiation deals

Off-ice buzz expected to bolster NBC, Versus TV agreements

TORONTO -- A modest rebound in U.S. TV ratings has the National Hockey League grooming Madison Avenue to help goose current TV deals with NBC and Versus, which are up for renegotiation next year.

John Collins, COO of the NHL, said the league is expanding its digital media strategy and big event programming lineup to make pro hockey more appealing to advertisers.

The hope is that off-ice buzz from fans will help the league's cause with NBC and Versus during TV contract talks after June, 2011.

"Part of what we're trying to do is create path for corporate marketers to activate against an attractive and growing demo: the NHL fan," Collins said after the 92nd regular season wrapped and the Stanley Cup playoff rounds got underway.

NBC's "Game of the Week" telecasts averaged a 0.9 household rating, up 13% from a year-earlier 0.8 rating, or 1,320,288 viewers this past season, according to the NHL.

NHL ratings on Versus, which has an exclusive U.S. cable deal, were a slow build this year until March when the sports channel returned to DirecTV programming packages after a long blackout due to a carriage dispute with the satellite provider.

The league said the final four weeks of the 2009-2010 regular season averaged 365,000 viewers on Versus, a 28% increase from last year's levels during the same period.

In Canada, NHL ratings were more impressive during the 2009-2010 season on the Sports Network and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

The ratings jump on either side of the border has much to do with the quality of hockey play, and the game remains always in Canada's DNA.

That said, Collins insists the bigger jolt the league received this year came from corporate.

"We're building an advertising marketplace that never existed before. If we're successful at doing that, that will affect the incremental revenue, plus all these other digital platforms, that will raise the tide of our national rights fees and make us a more valuable partner" for NBC and Versus, the NHL exec argued.

It's a gamble. The NHL's revenue-sharing deal with NBC has no money up front. The league essentially hears from the peacock network if it makes money on its game telecasts.

Talk of higher North American TV ratings for the NHL also comes amid renewed league expansion rumors, as speculation north of the border about new franchises in Winnipeg, southern Ontario and Quebec City is balanced by a continuing question mark over the struggling Phoenix Coyotes franchise.

The NHL's Collins isn't commenting on possible team movements in the coming years. That said, speculation is that the league is dangling the prospects of juicy team expansion fees and more lucrative TV deals with NBC and Versus to team owners to keep them onside as greater exposure is sought with Madison Avenue.