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NHL: National Hot League

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Five years after a labor dispute put the kibosh on the 2004-05 National Hockey League season, the sport is enjoying a resurgence, as ratings and advertising revenue are showing signs of growth. The improvement couldn’t come at a better time for the league, which is expected to start negotiations on its new television rights contract later this year.

Despite a six-month carriage dispute with DirecTV that led to a blackout in some 14 million U.S. TV households––about 20 percent of its overall sub base––cable rights holder Versus saw its regular season NHL deliveries drop just 6 percent to 297,000 viewers. Since DirecTV came back on line in mid-March, ratings have been booming. During the final four weeks of the season, Versus averaged 365,000 viewers, up 28 percent from the same period a year ago. Through the first week of its Stanley Cup Playoffs coverage, Versus has averaged 534,000 viewers, up 21 percent.

NBC’s hockey ratings are up as well. The broadcaster averaged a 0.9 HH rating and 1.32 million viewers with its Game of the Week telecasts, up 13 percent from the 2009-10 campaign. Meanwhile, NBC’s first weekend of playoff coverage was up 10 percent from a year ago, notching a 1.1 rating. Both Versus and NBC say they are pacing ahead of last year’s playoff sales and are nearly sold out.

To help draw young male viewers, the league has added more live video on NHL.com, where unique visitors are up 32 percent. “By creating a digital front door to the league…we have redefined ourselves in the marketplace,” said NHL COO John Collins.

League marketing partners like Verizon, Enterprise, Anheuser-Busch and Reebok have been heavy spenders, but nonpartners have also begun lining up. Among the unaffiliated sponsors that have bought time in Versus’ playoffs coverage are Discover Card, Pizza Hut, Volkswagen, Amway and Subway.

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