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Big-market success, possible expansion among key storylines from NHL’s first half

The NHL season has hit the midway point and there are several interesting storylines from the league's first half.

Sidney Crosby (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Sidney Crosby (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Several business storylines have emerged as the NHL season hits the midway point.

TV Ratings

This season marked the beginning of the league’s 12-year, $4.3 billion ($5.232 billion Canadian) broadcast agreement with Rogers, giving the company Canada’s rights to all NHL games, including the Stanley Cup playoffs and Stanley Cup final. It represents the largest media rights deal in NHL history and one of the largest media rights deals in Canadian history.

As for ratings, the league’s season opener delivered for U.S. rightsholder NBC Sports Network: The Flyers-Bruins game was cable’s most-watched NHL opener on record.

But it appears excitement has cooled as the season has progressed. Lost in the shuffle of NFL and college football seasons, and with more direct nightly viewership competition from the NBA and college basketball, NHL ratings in the U.S. and Canada have been average. Even the TV-friendly Bridgestone Winter Classic drew its lowest viewership ever.

The NHL could recover with the Coors Light Stadium Series, which will again feature outdoor hockey in California, this time matching the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings against the San Jose Sharks at Levi’s Stadium.

Ron Maclean and Don Cherry of "Hockey Night in Canada" (Photo by Kevin Light/NHLI via Getty Images)
Ron Maclean and Don Cherry of “Hockey Night in Canada” (Photo by Kevin Light/NHLI via Getty Images)

Possible expansion

The buzz about expansion has picked up after the league’s Board of Governors met in December and gave the potential Las Vegas ownership group the go-ahead to explore the sustainability of a franchise in that market.

Given that ground has already been broken on a state-of-the-art MGM-AEG arena on the strip, it appears that at least one major piece of the Vegas-expansion puzzle is in place. It remains to be seen how seriously the league and its owners would ultimately consider a Vegas team even if ownership can make its case as a viable NHL market. The usual suspects of cities without NHL teams — Seattle and Kansas City — also remain in play if the league expands beyond 30 teams.

MGM-AEG Las Vegas Arena (www.arenalasvegas.com)
MGM-AEG Las Vegas Arena (www.arenalasvegas.com)

Fantasy Sports

Daily fantasy sports offerings have exploded within the last few years and the NHL smartly hopped on board, inking a multi-year North American partnership with DraftKings to become the Official Daily Fantasy Game of the NHL.

In addition to being a new sponsorship revenue piece for the NHL, the deal opens the league up to new fans and broadens the ways in which current consumers engage with its product. Fantasy sports can also help create name-brand players and additional marketing around current stars. This has long been an issue given that many of the league’s top players are foreign-born. Still, aligning with DraftKings could help Tyler Seguin, Patrick Kane, Tyler Johnson and other top players join Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as household names.

Tyler Seguin (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
Tyler Seguin (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Big-Market Success

Last year was the first year of NHL realignment, and it increased the number of marketable matchups in the playoffs. The result was the second-most watched Stanley Cup playoffs since 2006. At the halfway point, the potential playoff matchups are flooded with major market cities: New York (Islanders and Rangers); Los Angeles and Orange County (Kings and Ducks); the Bay Area (Sharks); Chicago (Blackhawks); Boston (Bruins); and Washington D.C. (Capitals). Currently, Philadelphia and Toronto are the biggest markets on the outside looking in.

The USC Marshall Sports Business Institute is hosting its “Business of Hockey” event Jan. 15 on the USC campus. The event will feature a discussion with Luc Robitaille, President of Business Operations for the L.A. Kings and Michael Schulman, CEO of the Anaheim Ducks. Check back to read The Fields of Green’s coverage of the event.

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