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NHL's Winter Classic a Sellout on NBC

NBC and the National Hockey League have scored an early sellout of sponsorships and commercial time during the Winter Classic weeks ahead of last year, enhancing the annual outdoor contest as one of sport's fastest-growing new events.

The fourth Winter Classic, this year pitting the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on Jan. 1, will generate about 20% more revenue than last year, according to Keith Wachtel, senior VP of integrated sales the NHL, and has become an important component of the league's overall business.

"The Winter classic has really been a huge driver for all aspects of our business," Wachtel said. "We've gone from not having a presence from a broadcast standpoint to having a big presence. It's moved from the sports pages to the news pages. It's now a highly anticipated event."

This year's game could have a bigger audience than last year's game, which drew a 2.6 overnight rating, as the Boston Bruins beat the Philadelphia Flyers at historic Fenway Park. Each year, the classic has been the NHL's highest-rated regular season game. The game is featuring two of the league's most popular teams in terms of merchandise sales, and its top two players in terms of jersey sales in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. (Since the teams don special throwback uniforms for the classic, jersey sales are likely to rocket.)

Additionally, NBC has been promoting the game heavily, including during its Sunday Night NFL Games. And HBO this week began a new series taking an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the Penguins and the Capitals during the regular season as the Classic approaches which could help lure casual fans.

Bridgestone again is the presenting sponsor of the Classic. The tire company this year signed a new five-year deal locking in those rights. Taking the four in-ice positions are long-term sponsors Verizon, Geico and Honda plus new comer Dick's Sporting Goods. McDonald's has the rights to the player benches and penalty boxes, which receive a great deal of air time during the game.

Wachtel notes that the classic has been a big driver in persuading marketers to make deals with the NHL. In order to secure positions on the Classic, marketers also have to sponsor other league events and properties. "You're not going to give away your crown jewel without additional commitments and a traditional partnership," he said.

The NHL's official sponsors are also required to support the league's television sponsors. They don't have to buy time in the Classic, but this year, 60% of NBC's inventory was bought by NHL sponsors.

"From the standpoint of the buying community looking for a rating on January 1, we're one of those that can do it," Wachtel said. "It's a unique platform. There are 25-35 bowl games and unless it's the BCS, they're not differentiated."

Verizon will be launching a new hockey themed campaign during the game featuring Ovechkin and some other Capitals players.

Other advertisers who have bought time during the game include: U.S. Army, Discover, Anheuser-Busch, Cisco and Enterprise.

The event also gives a shot in the arm to the NHL's other media outlets. The NHL Network will be airing 17 hours of live Classic coverage starting on Dec. 30, twice what it aired last year. The NHL Network coverage is presented by Reebok.

Unique visitors to rose 31% during last year's Classic from the year before. Unique visitors during the classic are 12% higher than they are on other regular season days.