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Lockout Over, NHL Asks: Who Cares?

Lockout Over, NHL Asks: Who Cares? 1/20/2013 7:00 PM Eastern

With the lockout behind it, the National Hockey League is positioning its truncated 2013 regular season, which faced off on Jan. 19, as a 99-day sprint to the playoffs.

In coming weeks, we’ll find out just how quickly fans and sponsors return to the sport that shed 510 games, or 41% of its campaign, including the loss of two marquee events: the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day and the All-Star weekend in Columbus, Ohio, on Jan. 26-27.

The professional puck circuit reasons that each contest will take on heightened significance, and that its 30 clubs will expend maximum effort as every squad — even those that might not have the talent over the usual 82-game schedule — has a realistic chance to make the postseason.

Teams have rolled out the red carpet to fans, giving them free access to practice sessions, reducing ticket prices and offering fan-friendly merchandise and food promotions to entice them to arenas in the U.S. and Canada.

PACKAGE PRICE SLASHED

The NHL Game Center streaming package and In Demand’s Center Ice pay-per-view package are available for $49.99, the lowest price ever, while 40 million-subscriber NHL Network will air the same number of contests — 78 — over the next three months as it did over the course of the full 2011-12 season.

Now in the second of its 10-year, $2 billion rights deal, the NBC Sports Group will air 70 contests nationally. The schedule includes 14 exclusive windows (15 games) on NBC, the most regular-season windows ever for the broadcaster, as well as 24 exclusive windows and 26 exclusive games on NBC Sports Network.

For their part, regional sports networks owned by Fox Sports (12) and Comcast (four), as well as independents, are about to jump onto the ice with 40-plus game slates.

The NHL, after waiting for 119 days to conclude and ratify a 10-year collective bargaining agreement (either side can opt out after the eighth season) that now splits hockeyrelated revenue equally between owners and players, will stage at least one game every day until the regular season concludes on April 27. Four full playoff rounds will end with the Stanley Cup Finals, possibly extending until June 28.

All those activities and incentives aside, there is plenty of damage to overcome for the $3.3 billion industry. The league is running video promos and print ads extolling the virtues of the game, apologizing for the work stoppage and saying how the league will do all in its power to regain fans’ trust.

The NHL didn’t make any of its executives available for this article.

However, Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, summed up the settlement of the protracted labor dispute this way: “Nobody wanted to go through this, but we’re a very resilient group and we’re excited to get going.”

More specifically, he noted that NBC Sports Network lost 40 games of its marquee property and All-Star Weekend, while the Thanksgiving Friday contest and Winter Classic were casualties for NBC. Together, NBC Sports Group, he said, missed “significant ad dollars and opportunities.”

Daniel Ronayne, executive vice president and general manager, MSG Networks, said that with four NHL teams in its stable — the New York Rangers (41 games this season), New York Islanders (46), New Jersey Devils (41) and Buff alo Sabres (41) — MSG produces more hockey than any other network.

“We’ve missed hockey, no question,” he said. MSG faced off its coverage with a Rangers practice session and its weekly Hockey Night Live! show on Jan. 17, before airing games from all clubs this past weekend.

“It’s certainly a shame the lockout lasted so long and it seems like they came close to the ending the season,” Lee Berke, president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, said. “The hard-core hockey fans have been hurting badly, but general sports fans doesn’t pay that much attention to the NHL until the end of the football season. I don’t know how much that group missed the early part of the season.”

The strength of ratings will go a long way toward determining how much TV partners will salvage from this season.

Kyle Sherman, executive vice president of Home Team Sports — a division of Fox Sports Media Group that represents regional sports networks owned by Fox, NBC Sports Group and independent channels — said the company is selling NHL inventory “off of conservative estimates based on where we finished up last year. When we see the ratings, we’ll adjust our sales forecasts accordingly.”

Sherman acknowledged there could be a bit of struggle in January and February, but as the season progresses, he expects to “see sales build, especially with new budgets coming in April and new quarter.”

Still, Sherman is not expecting the RSNs to match last season’s NHL ad numbers.

For their part, NBC and NBC Sports Network scored just under $180 million in NHL ad sales during the 2011-12 regular seasons and playoffs, according to Kantar Media. This time around, Miller said, the cancellation of the first part of the season “really hurt our business and the dollars are uncertain for the first and second quarter.”

He noted that with “money left behind and switched elsewhere, we’ll never really know how much we lost.”

All the same, Seth Winter, executive vice president for sales and marketing, and his team at the NBC Sports Group have “lots of packages out there.” Miller said NBC Sports Group is working closely with the NHL sponsorship group.

With CNBC and the NHL Network teaming with NBC and NBC Sports Network, all of the league’s playoff games aired nationally for the first time in 2012, averaging 1.24 million viewers, the most in 15 seasons.

One of the league’s corporate marketing partners is Enterprise Rent-A-Car, whose deal expired at the end of last season. Chief marketing and communications officer Pat Farrell said the company was ready to extend its relationship with the NHL but the lockout intervened, before inking a new three-year deal last week.

Farrell said that after the 2004-05 season was wiped out by a labor dispute, “both fans and sponsors returned quickly. We believe [the NHL] is going to come back strong, and we want to be part of it.

SOME CLIENTS RETURNING

While sponsors with fourth-quarter goals reallocated their spending appropriately, Sherman said HTS has “core incumbents year in year out” that account for 30% to 40% of the group’s NHL revenues. He cited commitments in such key categories as autos, beer, financial and telecommunications. “Lot of clients are coming back,” he said, mentioning Taco Bell and MillerCoors.

Sherman was thankful about the lockout for one thing: “We won’t have to worry about this again for 10 years. Once we get rid of negative buzz, spending will resume.”

Likening the NHL to last year’s lockout-shortened National Basketball Association campaign, Berke said the “truncated season makes each game more valuable and meaningful. That should generate interest. I think ratings are going to hold up solidly. By this time next year, the lockout will be a distant memory.”

The NHL and its TV partners can only hope that’s the case.

September