SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40

Doug Perlman

Everybody needs a big break to become a big deal. Doug Perlman's break came when nobody thought the project the new 26-year-old lawyer had been assigned to was much of a big deal at all.

In 1995, Perlman was lured to join the NHL's in-house legal team from Proskauer Rose, the same law firm in which Gary Bettman and David Stern cut their teeth. A few months later, the NHL began discussions with IBM about a joint venture to form an Web site. To hear Perlman tell it, he was only involved in the deal because the synergies between pro sports and the new media sector were in their infancy.

"Otherwise they never would have let me work on it," he said. "But because nobody did realize how significant it was going to be, I was able to work on that, which was a great opportunity for me."

Through that project Perlman came into contact with senior management in the NHL, and from that point forward his star was on the rise. After immersing himself in a number of television and Web deals and moving rapidly through a variety of management positions, Perlman was named NHL senior vice president, television and media ventures early in 2001, at the ripe old age of 32.

While Perlman is also a major player in the league's national television contracts — he wouldn't comment on the status of talks to renew ABC/ESPN's deal, set to expire after this season — he spends most of his time figuring out ways for the NHL to capitalize on the digital world and developing technologies.

The balance sheet speaks to how important Perlman's sector has become for the NHL's bottom line. The league's digital business has grown by 450 percent over the past four years. Five years ago it made up 8 percent of the NHL's non-broadcast revenue. In the year just completed, the figure was 36 percent.

"These digital businesses — and by that I mean digital television and online and all the different things we're doing with wireless — have been incredibly strong businesses for us, and we think will continue to be," Perlman said.

He is bullish for a number of reasons, all of them revolving around the fact that the NHL's fan base, while not as widespread as the other major pro sports in the United States, anyway, is incredibly passionate. Because of that, anything that gives fans more control over when and how they can consume NHL hockey is bound to be a success in Perlman's eyes. The NHL fan is also more affluent and tech savvy than other sports; the league has the highest percentage of fans who own a computer and have broadband Internet access, for example. When you also consider the U.S. hockey fan has traditionally been under-served by conventional media, new technologies are a logical winner.

But at least some of the NHL's digital success is no doubt due to Perlman's vision and integrity, which have colleagues and business partners alike singing his praises.

"He's a wonderfully talented young man, very, very bright, great sense of business, terrific personal style," said Steve Solomon, the former NHL chief operating officer who served as Perlman's early mentor. "He's a true young superstar."

"When you work with him," said Philip Garvin, chief operating officer of HDNet, a high-definition network expected to broadcast some 300 NHL games this season, "you feel like there's a personal rapport, and I bet you everybody feels that way. It's business, but it's business with a personal touch. Although he's very tough, you never think he's going to take advantage of you."

Perlman says the NHL's deal with HDNet already has brought new fans to the league. He has heard from people who bought a high-definition set, stumbled across NHL games and became enthralled with the game. High definition gives a huge benefit to the NHL, he says, because the clarity of the picture and the aspect ratio allow viewers to see the play develop in a way conventional television can't match.

Where Perlman is involved, clarity seems to come with the package.

Mark Brender is a writer in Ontario.

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ABC, ESPN, Forty Under 40, Hockey, NHL

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