Hockey is hot? No, really. The National Hockey League is a big-time deal again.
Maybe not Justin Bieber hot, or Jersey Shore hot, or even Lady Gaga hot, but people are definitely talking about, and more importantly, watching, the NHL again.
More people watched the first round of the NHL playoffs than in the previous 10 years. The league's website got more traffic than it had in any month in history and there's a perceptible buzz about the sport now than there has been dating back to when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1993-94.
"The playoffs have been phenomenal," said John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer. "It's been a good season and it was a good season last year. It's been a couple of good seasons, back-to-back. It's nice."
The numbers suggest that the NHL, which has long languished in fourth place among the major American team sports, is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, six years after a lockout cost the league an entire season.
The league's average viewership numbers on VERSUS (595,000 for the first round) were the highest they've been for a national cable television carrier since ESPN/ESPN 2 in 2001 (608,000) and up 35 percent from last year (442,000).
NBC's numbers, through the end of April, are up 18 percent from last year and the highest since 2006. When you combine NBC and VERSUS' numbers, you get a figure that is up 24 percent from last year and the highest since 2000.
The reasons for the boom are varied. The league is certainly caught in the tide of increased viewership that has lifted all sports since the first of the year.
Additionally, the NHL and its style of play got a big burst of publicity during the Winter Olympics, as Canada and the United States battled in two tense, highly publicized games that showcased players who are league staples.
Once the playoffs started, Collins said, the league has reaped the benefit of good storylines involving teams in big markets like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington.
"At the end of the day, the hockey that you saw in the Olympic gold medal game and that you saw throughout the Olympic tournament is the same hockey that many people are rediscovering during the Stanley Cup playoffs," Collins said.
But while more viewers are taking in the NHL in Old Media forms, the league's turnaround story has root in efforts to boost its standing in New Media.
Collins, who came over to the NHL from the NFL three years ago, has moved to raise the league's national profile using a couple of approaches.
One is to use digital platforms, like the NHL Network, now in 38 million homes, mobile phones and its satellite radio alliance with Sirius and XM, to reach an audience the league believes is under-served.
"What we're seeing is some really well-designed products being offered across multiple platforms, which are providing content to that fan that, quite frankly, they're not getting anywhere else, and for which they have an almost insatiable appetite," said Collins, adding that hockey fans are demographically speaking, younger, more affluent and more tech savvy than most other sports fans.
The other tact the NHL has taken is to stage big events such as the annual New Year's Day Winter Classic, which resembles the NFL's standalone season opener.
Collins said the Classic, where a rink is placed in the middle of an outdoor baseball or football stadium, has become a hot-ticket event both for television and in the arenas, where, for instance, more than 300,000 people were on a waiting list for tickets to Fenway Park this past winter.
And the league may reap the ultimate reward: more television dollars. The NHL's deals with NBC and VERSUS expire after next season, and with ESPN having failed in its bid to wrest the NCAA men's tournament away from CBS, the Worldwide Leader may make a run at the NHL.
Indeed, John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president of content, told MediaWeek recently that he'd like to see the NHL return to ESPN, where it aired until 2004.Of course, if the proposed NBC-Comcast merger holds together and passes governmental muster, NBC and VERSUS, a Comcast property, could present a united front to the NHL.
At any rate, the future looks bright for the NHL, and who saw that coming?
Bullies out of the Schoolyard
Speaking of hockey, while fighting and general roughhousing are eschewed in today's game, there once was a time when the number of goals scored in a match was exceeded only by the number of players' teeth left on the ice.
That was the era of the Philadelphia Flyers, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and '75, in the process, earning the sobriquet "Broad Street Bullies," for the fact that their arena, the Spectrum, was located on Broad Street and that they beat the hell out of their opponents.
HBO celebrates the Flyers and a bygone era with a one-hour documentary, which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT, and features reminiscences from members of the team, team officials and writers. Everyone who appeared in a web preview appears to have all their teeth.
Staying in Place
TNT NBA analyst Doug Collins is reportedly under consideration for a couple of NBA head coaching vacancies, including the Philadelphia 76ers.
If we might offer a piece of entirely unsolicited advice to Collins, it would be DON'T DO IT, DOUG!
In coaching stops in Chicago, Detroit and Washington, Collins has proven to be a fine leader. However, behind the microphone, Collins is easily the best basketball analyst, college or NBA, working. He has been recognized by the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield for his brilliance, and while Collins could always return, fans of good basketball commentary should pray that he doesn't leave.
On the other hand, if Collins does go, Turner should move heaven and earth to lure current Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers off the bench and back behind the mikes.