NHL: The Puck Stops Here

Hockey lockout puts NBC Sports Network on thin ice

Four days into a lockout that threatens to put the kibosh on the entire 2012-13 National Hockey League season, league officials last week took the first step in making a $3.3 billion business disappear. Declaring that “the absence of a collective bargaining agreement” with the NHL Players’ Association left it no alternative, the league wiped out all 60 of the preseason games scheduled for September. Some players already have thrown in the towel, joining teams in Sweden and Russia.

Other than the fans, which during labor disputes are always left holding the wrong end of the hockey stick, no group stands to suffer more keenly from NHL deprivation than NBC Sports Network. With 90 regular-season games slated to air on the emerging cable channel between October and next April, the NHL is as indispensable as a sharp set of skates.

One need only glance at the Nielsen ratings to assess how crucial hockey is to the sports net. Although its NHL deliveries remain modest—regular-season telecasts generally topped out at around 600,000 viewers, and while Game 4 of the 2012 Stanley Cup drew 2.07 million viewers, that represented a 24 percent decline from the analogous year-ago game on NBCSN’s precursor Versus— those numbers are a huge improvement when compared with periods in which the net is hockey-free. Per Nielsen live-plus-seven-day ratings, NBCSN in the third quarter is on track to average just 174,000 total viewers in prime time, down 33 percent from Q3 2011.

Despite the inevitable loss of GRPs and advertising dollars it faces in the event of a prolonged work stoppage, NBC will still be on the hook for its $200 million annual rights fee. If the entire season is a wash, the NHL will be obliged to tack on an extra year after NBC’s contract expires in 2021, at no additional cost to the network.

In the meantime, NBC says it has a contingency plan in place. “We are hopeful that the lockout is resolved soon and does not affect our NHL programming,” one NBC executive said. “However, if games are missed, we have a large amount of quality live-event programming available to replace them, including soccer, boxing, and college hockey and basketball.”

NBC and NBCSN last season generated $150 million in NHL inventory, per Kantar Media. Because roughly half of those ad dollars were attached to the playoffs and Stanley Cup Final, media buyers will move their NHL-targeted dollars to other male-friendly outlets.

“The beneficiaries will be networks like FX and Spike,” said one TV buyer. “We have plenty of options.”

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