Substantial business growth for NHL in 2011

By Etheria Modacure

It was a new concept to an NHL All-Star game for 2011. Instead of having East vs. West or North America vs. The World, it was Team Lidstrom vs. Team Staal. Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings and Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes drafted players selected to the All-Star game to their respective teams.

The final score was Team Lidstrom 11, Team Staal 10. Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks was named All-Star game MVP. More exciting for the NHL than the All-Star game, which took place in Raleigh, N.C., on Jan. 30, was the substantial business growth for the league.

A growth in league-generated revenue is expected to escalate by 14 percent, which will result in an 85 percent increase throughout the last four years. The NHL also received a 32 percent increase in sponsorship and marketing revenue before the All-Star game from last season.

“Anytime you see numbers that big, you get excited by growth,” said Stephen McArdle, vice president of strategic planning for the NHL. “But when you see numbers that big in the face of the economy that we’re in, it’s an even more compelling story for us to be able to tell.”

Adding growth in sponsorships and marketing nearly six seasons after the cancellation of the 2004–2005 season, the NHL also welcomed an increased presence among casual fans.

McArdle said what helped facilitate some of this growth was the NHL’s ability to execute their planned strategy to use prominent events, such as the Winter Classic, the Heritage Classic and the All-Star Game to provide sponsors with new platforms to work with.

“We’ve given [our corporate sponsors] new avenues and new ways to activate their brand against our games and our platforms,” McArdle said.

Advertising on and NHL network increased by 55 percent before the All-Star weekend.

Attendance climbed throughout North America with teams playing to an audience of more than 93 percent capacity—up from last season’s total—which was at 92.6 percent. It was the third-best total in NHL history.

What helps with this increase is most of the playoff races have 25 of 30 teams in contention for the postseason. The Blackhawks were four points behind the Calgary Flames for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference as of Feb. 18.

“The league is extremely well-positioned,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “The vital signs are good, and we anticipate continued growth and momentum. The strong numbers are a testament to a great product on the ice, a growing fan base that loves our game, and a strategy that provided a path for corporate America to reach that fan base.”

Televised games have also seen growth with VERSUS network, averaging 301,000 viewers through 29 telecasts, which is up 6 percent from last season.

The most-viewed NHL regular season game in 36 years was this season’s Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Winter Classic began in 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., with the Penguins facing the Buffalo Sabres. Since, the Red Wings and Blackhawks played at Wrigley Field in 2009, and the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins played at Fenway Park in 2010.

What could’ve accelerated ratings for this year’s Winter Classic wasn’t the rivalry between captains Alex Ovechkin of the  Capitals and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, but the “Road to the Winter Classic” 24/7 series on HBO that showed fans the reality of the rigorous training and daily activities of players on both teams leading up to the game.

According to Raymond Stallone, vice president of media relations for HBO, this was the first time the network did a reality show on the NHL. He said the concept came from the popularity of the “Broad Street Bullies” documentary that highlighted the 1975 Stanley Cup Champions, Philadelphia Flyers.

“On every level this was a terrific success,” Stallone said. “We hit it out of the park with this one. It was a terrific launch to a terrific partnership.”

After executives from the NHL and HBO met occasionally, both agreed a new endeavor would enhance visibility, according to Stallone. With the winter classic approaching, they decided the idea of doing a reality series around the Capitals and Penguins—who are rivals—was beneficial to both parties.

“We had a chance to launch a new series with two teams that have a fierce rivalry,” Stallone said. “Everything just seemed to fit. It seemed like a terrific idea [and] it seemed like a fascinating series.”

Stallone said there weren’t many obstacles for the network to get through as the league and both teams allowed unrestricted access for filming and understood what HBO wanted to accomplish. He noted the series had intriguing story lines with the Capitals struggling at the time and Penguins in the midst of a 10-game

winning streak.

“It was terrific for the NHL that they were able to get their wonderful product on HBO’s premium cable channels,” Stallone said. “The fact it was distributed in both the United States and Canada, it was a really terrific presentation for the NHL.”