Hockey Gets Hot at The Right Time

The modestly rated NHL has momentum as TV deals come up for renewal

Why This Matters

The Commish Talks TV

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman answered a couple of questions about television between periods of a Stanley Cup Finals game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers. He talked with B&C's Jon Lafayette about the Comcast-NBC Universal merger, the league's upcoming rights negotiations and why hockey is a national sport. More.

With the National Hockey League's current deals
with NBC and Versus expiring after next season, it could be a very good time
for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to be negotiating a new round of
TV rights agreements.

"Gary is in a much better position today than he was a year ago or even
two years ago," said Marc Ganis, president of consulting firm Sportscorp. "As I
say that, the NHL is not one of the great broadcast properties available."

But the NHL is on an uptick. The season concluded with two storied
teams from top-five U.S. TV markets, the Chicago Blackhawks and the
Philadelphia Flyers, facing off for the Stanley Cup, and initial ratings for
the finals were up by double digits.

But the league
has had a rocky road as a television property. After a damaging strike in 2004-05, the NHL struck a revenue-sharing deal with NBC. On
cable, the network was dropped by ESPN but wound up on Versus, which is paying
more than $72.5 million per season.

Bettman attributed the NHL's resurgence to the quality of the game, a
new Website loaded with video and events such as the Winter Classic. "We're
doing a lot of marketing and promotional things that give us an opportunity to
build scale, and you're seeing some of that scale translate into our
traditional television ratings; you're [also] seeing it in the traffic on," he said.

But even with
its recent gains, the NHL is no NBA. On May 29, the first game of the Stanley
Cup Finals drew a 2.8 rating on NBC. TNT posted a 5.8 rating with an NBA
playoff game featuring the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns.

Though some have complained that the NHL gets much less exposure on
Versus than it did on ESPN, the incumbent rights holders have the inside track
when talks begin, according to Bettman. "The fact is that whenever you have a
relationship and it's a good relationship, you always talk to your existing
partners first," he told B&C.

On the broadcast
side, Bettman declined to say whether he'd be asking for a rights fee in the
next round of negotiations. And Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, also
declined to say whether NBC is willing to pay one. But he did say the fact NBC
isn't paying a fee shouldn't reflect on the NHL. "Hockey is a fabulous sport,"
Schanzer said, adding that the network's deal with the NBA in the 1990s called
for both a rights fee and a revenue share.

Former CBS
Sports president Neal Pilson said he expects the league to stick with its
current TV outlets, unless someone shows up with a big rights fee and a
schedule similar to NBC's. "Versus will continue to offer the NHL more exposure
and more money than ESPN," Pilson said. "ESPN has so many other commitments,
while the NHL is Versus' flagship sport." And with Comcast acquiring NBC, "I
think they can generate more revenue together," he added.

But there is that loud contingent that thinks the NHL
has to get back on ESPN, among them Sportscorp's Ganis. "It's not so much a
matter of whether the teams could make an extra million or two million a year
in revenue," he said. "What they need more than anything else is exposure and
cross-promotion, and for better or worse in the U.S., for sports that means