NHL ratings, ad revenue growing

League will negotiate rights contract this year

Five years after a labor dispute put the kibosh on the 2004-05 NHL season, hockey is enjoying a resurgence, as ratings and ad revenue show signs of growth. The improvement couldn't come at a better time for the league, which is expected to start negotiations on its new TV rights contract this year.

Despite a six-month carriage dispute with DirecTV that led to a blackout in 14 million U.S. TV households –– about 20% of its overall subscriber base -- cable rights holder Versus saw its regular-season NHL deliveries drop just 6% to 297,000 viewers.

Since DirecTV came back online in mid-March -- and with the buzz following the thrilling Canada-USA gold medal game at the Vancouver Winter Olympics -- ratings have been booming.

During the final four weeks of the season, Versus averaged 365,000 viewers, up 28% from the same period a year ago. Through the first week of its Stanley Cup playoffs coverage, Versus has averaged 534,000 viewers, up 21%.

NBC's hockey ratings are up as well. The broadcaster averaged a 0.9 household rating and 1.3 million viewers with its Game of the Week telecasts, up 13% from the 2009-10 campaign. Meanwhile, NBC's first weekend of playoff coverage was up 10% from a year ago, notching a 1.1 rating. Both Versus and NBC said they are pacing ahead of last year's playoff ad sales and are nearly sold out.

To help draw young male viewers, the league has added more live video on NHL.com, where unique visitors are up 32%.

"By creating a digital front door to the league, we have redefined ourselves in the marketplace," NHL COO John Collins said.

League marketing partners such as Verizon, Enterprise, Anheuser-Busch and Reebok have been heavy spenders, but nonpartners also have begun lining up. Among the unaffiliated sponsors that have bought time for Versus' playoffs coverage are Discover Card, Pizza Hut, Volkswagen, Amway and Subway.

"There is a good, healthy buzz about the NHL," said Christine Merrifield, senior vp and director of video investment at MediaVest. "From an advertiser perspective, it's priced fairly. And being able to combine broadcast and cable buys is good."

Scale might be the only factor working against the NHL.

"The one downside is that it doesn't have a mass reach that the other major TV sports have," she said.

The uptick in hockey comes at a crucial time for the current rights holders. With Versus and NBC contracts set to expire in 2011, John Skipper, exec vp content at ESPN, has indicated he'd like hockey to return to ESPN and ABC.

Versus president Jamie Davis aims to hold on to the asset.

"We took over the telecasts in 2005, the year after the lockout," he said, "and together with the NHL, as true partners, we have worked to bring the viewers back."

At least one national TV buyer is rooting for Versus.

"If the NHL goes back to ESPN, it is going to get lost on a network that shows so many different sports," the buyer said. "On Versus, it stands out."

The buyer added that the completion of the proposed Comcast-NBC Universal deal would make a joint NBC/Versus hockey buy just as potent as an ABC/ESPN one.