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Q&A: NHL COO Checks In On Growth

In the wake of huge TV sports events in recent weeks, from Butler and Duke's thriller in the NCAA championship game to Phil Mickelson's emotional Masters victory, it might be easy to overlook that the puck dropped on the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs Apr. 14.

While TV ratings dipped slightly on cabler Versus this season and regular-season telecasts on NBC were flat, NHL COO John Collins says the property is energized by a post-Olympics ratings lift, a big digital media push and excitement surrounding the league's big event strategy.

Versus' 52 regular season games averaged 297,000 viewers this year, according to numbers compiled by the authoritative sports industry trade publication, The Sports Business Daily. But 12 telecasts following a riveting Olympics jumped to an average of 347,000 viewers, as the network returned to DirecTV following a long stand-off.

In the digital space, surpassed last year's number of unique visitors by 32% and subscriptions to the league's Game Center Live rose 25%. The NHL's mobile product reached 1.6 million page views and revenue generated from the Winter Classic, held at Fenway Park in Boston, increased 22%.

Collins spoke with B&C's David Tanklefsky about the league's strategy for growth.

Q: What can you tell us about Versus ratings since regaining carriage with DirecTV?

A: Versus ratings since they have regained distribution with DirecTV have really gone through the roof. Even without DirecTV, Versus numbers were pretty good year on year as people continue to understand the brand [and] hockey fans continue to know where to look for Versus. We have some good matchups in the first round [of this year's playoffs] and hopefully beyond so we're hoping for some really explosive growth on Versus.

Q: The NHL has worked hard to enhance the fan experience and build out its digital properties. What aspects of that space have been most successful?

A: We've been committed to a plan that talks about building league scale, building national scale. We're a $2.6B business, and as we evaluated the opportunity for growth we saw that it was in activating fans in new ways. We had a strategy that was really about digital media and big events, the biggest example of which was the Winter Classic at Fenway [this year]. [It has to do with] engaging fans in ways we haven't before. Whether that's new platforms we've launched in the digital space or blowing doors off the business in terms of advertising sales or subscriptions and traffic. Corporate America and Madison Avenue have been our biggest barometer of success with that strategy. Getting them to spend in this environment says a lot about the quality of the NHL demo, which is younger, more affluent, more tech savvy. We've now, through digital media and big events strategy, given marketers a clear path on how to activate those fans.

Q: How big of an impact has the Olympics had on interest in the NHL?

A: The biggest factor that I've seen influencing our business after the Olympics is business from corporate sponsors. I was on a panel with a guy from Subway, Tony Pace (Subway CMO), big hockey fan, and he had been trying to find a way to get his franchisees into hockey and presented a number of different plans and was told that they should look at football because that property was more nationally appropriate from their franchisee group. After the gold medal match, they were saying "we should take a look at hockey." Subway and Blackberry are two sponsors [getting into the space heavily]; We're producing a daily all-access show with Blackberry that will be distributed online. They're spending a significant amount of money online with NBC and Versus. It created an enormous amount of conversation around hockey.

Q: What is the idea behind the big events strategy the league has embraced in recent years?

A: I've been here three years and was at the NFL prior to that and nobody does big events better than the NFL. But we think the Winter Classic, which has been a phenomenal success with us and NBC, has been the best example, but it's not the only example. We start our season creating new hospitality events in Vegas, with our year-end annual awards show, the draft, all things that follow the normal course of the hockey season but now we're spending our money behind exposing these events to a bigger audience and creating platforms that corporate America and corporate Canada can really activate against.

Q: How does the league's digital media strategy relate to growing its U.S. fan base?

A: What we've found is hockey fans' appetite for this sport is really insatiable. From the redesign of a few years ago, [we've put] emphasis of video as a way to drive traffic and advertising. We've had the NHL Mobile introduction in America and we released an IPhone app in Europe. Hockey fans continue to respond to these different platforms and I think its aggregating an audience that we knew was there but in many respects is only hinted at through the very strong regional numbers that hockey gets. We're looking to change the dialogue around successful metrics of hockey by beginning to emphasize digital media and big events.

Q: You've reported 20% growth in sponsorship this year. What are factors you can attribute that to?

A: Over the last three years we've averaged 65% growth year over year. The demo is there, it's a very attractive demo and we're making it easier for corporate America and Corporate Canada to activate against it. When we talk big event, people immediately think about Winter Classic, which was sold out almost before the tickets went on sale for Fenway and we have a long list of sponsors and advertisers who want to be part of it. Blackberry uses as a device to reach our technically savvy fan base.