Hockey comes up a winner for NBC with LA-New York matchup

Tue Jun 3, 2014 6:08pm EDT
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By Liana B. Baker

(Reuters) - NBC Sports is reaping an unexpected dividend from the $2 billion bet it made on hockey three years ago as the NHL prepares for a rarity in sports - a championship matchup between teams from New York and Los Angeles, TV's two largest markets.

U.S. ratings for the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals between the New York Rangers and the LA Kings have the potential to set a new record for the network, said Brad Adgate, research chief for media and advertising firm Horizon Media, though some media buyers say it will be hard to beat last year's Chicago Blackhawks win over the Boston Bruins in six games.

"It's not the Dodgers and Yankees or even Knicks and Lakers, but I think the ratings will be pretty strong, the best since NBC began covering the NHL in 2005," Adgate said.

The big-market matchup could not have come at a better time for the NHL as well as NBC Sports, which is owned by Comcast Corp. In 2011, the network signed a 10-year contract with the NHL, paying an estimated $1.8 billion to $2 billion to the league.

But at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, a labor dispute delayed the start of the season by three months, raising concerns that the casual American hockey fan would lose interest.

Despite the setback, the league showed signs of a quick comeback. Ratings increased for the 2013 Stanley Cup final making it the most watched final since 1994, and the NHL increased its TV exposure by expanding its roster of outdoor games, including two matchups featuring New York area teams staged at Yankee Stadium. It also introduced a fresh playoff format to set up more games among traditional rivals.

When the puck drops Wednesday for the Stanley Cup Final series between the Kings and the Rangers, the league looks healthy and its momentum is likely to build.

Teams from two largest U.S. TV markets have not faced off in a final of a major sport since 1981, when the LA Dodgers played the New York Yankees in baseball's World Series.   Continued...