NHL Ups Sponsorships, Media Spending

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The NFL isn't the only sport to crow about higher ratings and revenue -- the NHL has lifted its key business numbers, as well as its media dollars to TV partners.

Over the past year, the NHL has either renewed or started a series of new league sponsorships. The list includes McDonald's, Geico, Starwood Hotels, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Cisco Systems, Honda, Bridgestone, Discover Card, Verizon, LG Electronics, Tim Hortons and Hershey's Canada.

Through last season, NHL sponsorship and advertising revenue grew 66%. Over the last three years, the NHL has signed new sponsorship and advertising deals worth more than $330 million. NHL has about 20 partners in the U.S. and Canada.

"We have the number one or two or three brands in all categories," says Keith Wachtel, senior vice president of corporate sales and marketing for the NHL.

While all of that is important, of greater benefit to major TV partners, such as NBC and Versus, as well as regional sports networks and TV stations, is whether new league sponsorships will convert -- be activated -- into significant TV advertising. Wachtel says that has indeed been the case -- ever since the league started up after the 2004-2005 NHL season was canceled due to a lockout: "We need our partners to support the brand. That is vital to long-term growth."

He also adds: "They see us taking risks." And that's good for business. For example, for its NHL All-Star weekend -- the first in two years because of the Winter Olympics -- the league added more marketing opportunities. Cisco Systems sponsors the "NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft" on Friday, January 28th. Then on January 29th, Honda Motors takes a key sponsor position for a skill competition -- the "Honda NHL SuperSkills" event.

Another key example for growth is increasing TV prices that sponsors will pay for individual events. For example, for its NHL All-Star game, the league has added Discover Card as a presenting sponsor on the Versus telecast. It's the first time the league has had a "presenting sponsor" in more than a decade -- deals that usually command a hefty premium.

Overall, the league is now up 4% to 5% in revenue to almost $2.9 billion. But it is anticipated that the NHL will grow by 14%, which the league says is an 85% climb over the last four years.

Some new patina on the sport comes from visible, big talent -- Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. Critics also give the NHL a lot of credit over the last couple of years with a special outdoor January 1 game, the "NHL Winter Classic."

The game continues to grow. The most recent game yielded 4.5 million viewers on NBC, watching the Washington Capitals defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ratings grew by 22% over the year before, as well as posting the biggest regular-season game numbers in 36 years.

Regular-season league game cable network Versus has seen ratings improve 6% through 29 telecasts to an average 301,000 viewers.

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