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Volume 21 No. 2
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Sponsorship drives NHL to $2.9B in revenue

The NHL saw impressive growth in its overall bottom line for the sixth consecutive year, reaching a record $2.9 billion in revenue this season thanks to healthy corporate sponsorship sales and television ratings. The gain equates to revenue growth of 7.4 percent, which matches the league’s midseason prediction.

New corporate deals, including a seven-year, $375 million deal with MillerCoors, helped the league post its best earnings ever despite only incremental growth in ticket sales. The league announced its projected earnings in a release last Wednesday but declined to comment for this story.

NHL Enterprises, the league’s merchandising and licensing division, showed the most growth, with a 14.8 percent bump in overall revenue from 2009-10 numbers. Much of those earnings came from increased sponsorship sales, as the NHL collected 33 percent more in gross sponsorship earnings from 2009-10.

In addition to the MillerCoors deal, which is the league’s largest partnership, the NHL also brought on Canadian Tire, Discover, Tim Hortons, Huggies and Hershey as new corporate partners, with Discover and Tim Hortons becoming presenting sponsors of the NHL All-Star Game and the Heritage Classic, respectively. The league also renewed deals with Bridgestone, Cisco Systems, RIM BlackBerry and McDonald’s. The latter took on the presenting sponsor role of the NHL’s inaugural “Hockey Day in America,” which showcased six hours of hockey programming on NBC and Versus on Feb. 20.

NBC and Versus also declined to comment for this story.

The league’s “tent-pole” events received a boost with the addition of a second outdoor game: the Feb. 20 Heritage Classic in Calgary. The game generated the most revenue for a single event in league history and averaged 2.078 million viewers on CBC and 608,000 viewers on Versus.

The Jan. 1 Winter Classic saw a 22 percent growth in sponsorship sales and became the most-watched regular-season event in 36 years, with an average viewership of 4.46 million on NBC. The NHL All-Star Game saw ratings increase 33 percent from 2009 numbers and revenue jump 64 percent from 2008, the last time it was held in the U.S.

The All-Star Game was not played in 2010 because of the Winter Olympics.

Versus averaged a 0.2 U.S. rating and 353,000 viewers across 78 televised games, which represents an 18.9 percent increase from 2009-10, when the network had a seasonlong carriage dispute with DirecTV. The Versus viewership count also represents a 68 percent increase from 2003-04, the NHL’s final full season on ESPN2.

NBC, which broadcast 10 regular-season games, including the Winter Classic, posted a 1.0 rating and 1.648 million viewers for its coverage. The rating is flat but it marks a 1.4 percent increase in viewership from 2009-10.

The league also broadened its reach online, based on SportsBusiness Journal calculations, increasing its number of average monthly unique visitors from 18 million in 2009-10 to 23.4 million in 2010-11.

At the gate, the league posted a modest 0.3 percent increase in attendance, averaging 17,132 fans per game. Twelve teams posted at- or above-capacity attendance.

Eight teams posted drops in average attendance, with four teams — Phoenix, Columbus, Atlanta and the New York Islanders — drawing fewer than 14,000 fans per game. Columbus lost 10.7 percent of its attendance from 2009-10, Dallas lost 12.4 percent and the Islanders dropped 13.2 percent, falling to a league-low average attendance of 11,060 fans per game.

The largest increase at the gate came from the Tampa Bay Lightning, which grew attendance by 11.4 percent and averaged 17,269 fans per game. Brad Lott, vice president of sales and marketing for the Lightning, said the team decreased ticket prices by 6 percent and rescaled prices in the lower bowl, and offered single-game discounts with to drive its best sales year since 2005-06.

“Obviously winning has not hurt us, either,” Lott said. “We haven’t been the greatest on the ice in the last three years, so [the team] has given us something to be excited about.”