Is the NHL the Next Big Sports Property?

The National Hockey League's audience may be tiny compared to the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association, but the NHL may finally be ready to take a seat at the grownups' table.

Despite a lockout-shortened season in 2013, the league saw its viewership increase 20% over the prior season, according to Nielsen's 2013 Year in Sports Media Report. Not only is its audience growing, the NHL boasts an increasingly lucrative audience, according to Nielsen -- 53% of viewers for nationally televised regular season NHL games in 2013 came from households earning more than $75,000 a year, compared to only 27% of its audience 10 seasons ago.

Advertisers are noticing too as the league's top five 2012-2013 advertisers included top brands Discover Credit Card, Geico Auto Insurance, Subway, and Coors Light.

New TV deals

As I wrote in "Which Sport Has The Richest Fans? The Answer Will Surprise You," the NHL has a  U.S. TV deal with Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSK  ) NBC Sports Network worth around $200 million a year, which runs through 2021. In Canada, the league has a 12-year, $5.2 billion deal with Rogers Sportsnet (roughly $430 million a year), which begins with the 2014-2015 season.

Since the implementation of the salary cap during the 2005-2006 season, it has risen from around $39 million per team to over $70 million in the 2012-2013 season. The cap number actually fell in 2013-14, but that was due not to declining revenues, but to a newly negotiated collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NHL Players Association, which changed how revenue was split between teams and players.

$4 billion in revenue

The NHL made a record $3.3 billion in revenue during its last full season (2011-12) and NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins laid out a plan to the league's board of governors that would see revenue increase to $4 billion within three years. That plan was before the Canadian TV deal.

"We thought it was ambitious at the time," Collins said in an NHL press release, "but maybe we undershot, maybe we'll do that a little sooner."

The deal with Rogers should allow the league to boost the salary cap from its current $64.3 million starting with the 2014-15 season.

"Over the course of 12 years, it provides a lot of economic certainty for the clubs and, ultimately, for the cap," Collins said. "Fifty cents of every dollar goes into the player salaries, so this is a significant increase and it certainly helps us get to the $4 billion goal."

The NHL audience is growing

Regular season viewing grew 19% in the 2012-2013 season, according to Nielsen. Better yet, the audience for the Stanley Cup Finals blew up, growing from 3 million in 2012 to to 5.8 million in 2013 -- a 91% increase in the U.S.

One of the reasons for the increase may well be that technology finally is catching up to make watching hockey on TV a good experience. Prior to HDTV becoming the norm in American homes, the complaint about hockey was always that it was hard to follow the small, black puck on TV. When it held hockey rights, Fox tried the FoxTrax glowing puck, which was widely ridiculed.

But now 75% of American households own at least one HDTV, according to Leichtman Research group, as reported in April 2013 by HDTV Review. That number is up from 52% in 2008. Basically, the same HDTV technology that exposes every previously hidden wrinkle on your local newscaster makes hockey on TV a much better experience even for casual or new fans.

The value of sports rights is growing

While the NHL won't be able to make a new TV deal in the United States until 2021 and won't be free to do the same in Canada until 2027, the current deals -- especially the U.S. deal -- should continue to grow. The Hollywood Reporter reported that, according to a report by Deloitte, in 2014 global sports rights will have brought in $26 billion, a 14% increase. "This compares to an average annual growth of 5% between 2009 and 2013."

"We see no signs that the premium sports rights value bubble is about to burst. Rights fees for live content to premium properties overall will continue to grow," said Austin Houlihan, a senior consultant in the Sports Business Group at Deloitte, to the Hollywood Reporter. "Premium live sport delivers large audiences, typically characterized by an attractive demographic profile. It drives subscriptions and generates advertising for broadcasters, particularly in an increasingly altered media landscape."

NHL is paid a pittance compared to MLB

It's probably not fair to compare hockey rights to those of the NFL, which bring in around $3 billion for the league. But is it ridiculous to think NHL rights might be worth closer to what MLB receives? According to MLB, its eight-year national media rights agreements with Fox (NASDAQ: FOX  ) and Time Warner's (NYSE: TWC  ) TBS, combined with the league's deal with Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) ESPN, will deliver a combined $12.4 billion -- more than a 100% increase in annual rights fees to MLB over the current arrangements.

Baseball, which, according to Nielsen averaged .69 million viewers per regular season game, a little better than hockey's .5 million, gets paid $1.3 billion more for its U.S. rights each year. Yes, the World Series averaged 14.9 million viewers, compared to the Stanley Cup Finals 5.8 million, but that hardly seems worth $1.2 billion.

With growing competition for rights, it seems the NHL is being penalized for past perception and that when it ultimately can make a new deal in the U.S. it's likely to have multiple suitors willing to pay more. Add in the improved watchability of the NHL only increasing as more people buy better TVs and hockey's surprisingly well-off fan-base and the NHL looks to be poised to continue its upward climb.

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