NBC Expects to Score Gains With Stanley Cup Playoffs

A hot scatter market and an all-American-teams lineup for the Stanley Cup playoffs should help the National Hockey League melt ad sales records.

Sports is increasingly popular with advertisers, and while hockey struggles to overcome an image as a regional, niche sport, over the 10 years NBC has had the NHL’s broadcast rights, regular season ratings have increased 73% and playoff ratings have jumped 109%.

NBCUniversal has been televising every NHL playoff game since 2013. Last year ad sales for the playoffs were up about 10% to $151 million according to Kantar Media. NBCU executive VP Seth Winter said that so far, playoff ad sales are pacing 6% ahead of last year. He expects to finish up a similar amount to last year now that the roster of playoff teams is set and second-quarter scatter sales have kicked in, with growth in the high-to mid-single digits.

Comcast’s Versus had the cable rights to NHL hockey, and when the cable giant bought NBCUniversal in 2011, it brought all of hockey’s national rights together under one tent.

“I started in the group 10 years ago. One of the first meetings I had was being introduced by [former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and president Ken Shanzer] at the NHL offices and meeting [COO] John Collins, who had just started at that time,” Winter recalls. Collins left the NHL last year after helping to increase league revenue to $4 billion from $2 billion when he started.

“It’s been a great upward trajectory,” Winter says.

This season, the NHL on NBC averaged 1.545 million viewers, up 6% from the 2014-15 season. Hockey on NBCSN averaged 378,000 viewers, up 2% from last season, making it the most-watched full NHL season on cable in 22 years. That puts NBC in good shape as the playoffs begin. “We have a lot of the right teams, right matchups, a very, very healthy marketplace,” Winter says.

The bulk of NBC’s playoff inventory is eaten up by regular hockey advertisers, including official league sponsors that buy strips across the regular season and postseason. Official sponsors include Discover Card, Honda, McDonald’s, MillerCoors, Geico and Kraft. Others going big with hockey include Microsoft, Lexus, Chrysler, SAP and Subway.

“We’ve got a really good mixture by category,” Winter says.

Winter says NBC Sports has inventory available for what has been a strong scatter market. “We’re actively in the market right now. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of receptivity to it.”

What makes hockey attractive is the avidness of its fans who are relatively young and affluent, with a median age in the late 30s and early 40s—decades younger than most other major sports.

Good Bang For One’s Puck

Dave Campanelli, senior VP director of national broadcast at Horizon Media, which buys media for Geico, says the NHL has become a core sport for the insurance company. “They’re able to take a very significant ownership position at a cost that’s priced appropriately compared to the NFL or some of the other sports,” he says. Geico is the presenting sponsor of the NHL Playoffs.

He says the NHL has been slowly but steadily growing over the years and “the bang for the buck has been incredibly valuable.”

Campanelli expects ratings for this year to be strong. “I think it’s going to be an upswing from last year,” he says. “I guess for the sport, it’s not necessarily good that no Canadian teams are in the playoffs. But for TV viewership in the U.S. it certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Winter says the most important thing for the league is to have long, competitive series.

Most of the major sponsored elements of the broadcasts are with brands that have long-term deals.

McDonald’s is the presenting sponsor of the NHL Live pregame show and Lexus presents the first intermission report. Discover Card presents the second intermission report and Subway presents the intermission before overtime.

League sponsors with feature positions include Coors Light with its Cold Hard Facts, SAP with player profiles and Honda with the starting goalies.

Kraft sponsors Hockeyville USA with the NHL and NBC Sports, seeking the most enthusiastic hockey community, which can win upgrades to the facilities at its local rink.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.