When the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators squared off in the Stanley Cup in 2007, a number of daily newspapers – such as the New York Post – refused to send their beat writers. Why pay the expenses to cover teams who could barely generate interest outside their backyards?
In fact, for reporters who attended, the biggest challenge seemed to reside in choosing an absurd comparison for the low TV ratings the five-game series drew. Did the WNBA get more viewers than the Stanley Cup? How about hot-rod racing? Chili-dog eating?
Today, the Post is back in the press box covering the Detroit-Pittsburgh battle. And though daily newspapers are far from ubiquitous at the finals, other media are picking up the slack. Close to 700 are credentialed by the NHL to cover the Stanley Cup – including two dozen bloggers – compared to 550 last year. And journalists are stumbling over one another to praise the NHL rather than bury it.
Beyond a strong Stanley Cup matchup featuring an Original Six team and NHL rising star Sidney Crosby – who, if his team comes back to capture the Stanley Cup, will be too young legally to drink from it – there’s good reason for the change of heart.
After a painful stretch in the wilderness, the NHL is starting to regain its foothold as a player among the three other major sports leagues: the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball.
Consider the following:
- Overall league attendance during the regular season set a new record, exceeding 21 million fans.
- Versus has enjoyed record ratings during certain playoff games, boosted by solid matchups such as the Battle of Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The network's Game 2 telecast on Monday was up 233.3 percent from last year's Game 2 between Anaheim and Ottawa.
- The Winter Classic, set in Buffalo on a frigid Jan. 1 and broadcast on NBC, drew 72,000 fans and the best television audience for the league since Wayne Gretzky retired, despite being pitted against college bowl games.
- Merchandise sales jumped this year, with trading cards and video game revenue up significantly.
- Forbes noted the average hockey franchise is now worth north of $180 million, a $17 million increase since pre-lockout numbers.
"It's a $2.5 billion business with 53 million people in North America who love the sport," said John Collins, senior executive vice president of business & media, who was recruited by the league after a successful stint at the NFL.
Collins wants to persuade those millions to follow the sport avidly even when their favorite team is not playing. In past years, in a bizarre twist, NHL.com traffic declined come playoff time. No longer.
"Digital is the most natural platform for us," said Collins, pointing to the launch of the seven-channel NHL Network Online in April as a way to keep fans of non-playoff teams captivated. The portal offers a hefty package of video, including shots of teams warming up and goals of the week, though there are no plans for live game coverage. “The Hockey Show” on NHL Network Online is sponsored by Bud Light.
This past season at NHL.com, sales of league-licensed products jumped 34 percent. In the fall, NHL.com – the most popular sports site in Canada – will be revamped to further attract visitors, about one-third who log in from Europe.
"Our fans (40 percent of whom are displaced) do more online than fans of other sports," Collins said.
Collins has helped to introduce ideas that appeal to league sponsors. During the playoffs, a Stanley Cup Playoffs logo has appeared inside the blue lines on the ice, seen by fans in arenas and those watching on television. Business partners will use that logo next year to help sell their products.
The NHL got a big boost this year when new ownership in Chicago revitalized an Original Six franchise, bringing fan favorites such as Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita back as ambassadors and televising home games for the first time. The city now is a prime candidate for the next Winter Classic. In a bid for something different, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman began hosting a satellite radio show. The league has also benefited from being scandal-free, looking family-friendly compared to ongoing steroid accusations in baseball, the New England Patriots’ Spygate troubles and the NBA-referee-gambling black eye.
Of course, all is not perfect. Franchise values may be soaring, but even the top team – the Toronto Maple Leafs at $413 million, according to Forbes – is only half as valuable as the 26th-ranked team in the NFL, the San Diego Chargers. Despite gains on Versus, the NHL would be better served on a more popular cable channel with wider distribution, such as ESPN. None of its players are anywhere near the top 10 pro athletes in endorsement income.
But the 2007-2008 season has been a banner one. Says Collins: "There's nothing wrong with hockey. It's a great story, a great demographic. We just need to sell hockey a little better."