NBC Universal Takes Over Some Ad Sales for NHL

Ad Deal Will Help Broadcaster Build Up Its Sports Properties Under Comcast

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Credit: AP

In a maneuver that might seem as unorthodox as slapping a puck into the goal for the opposing team, NBC Universal is set to assume U.S. ad-sales responsibilities for not only the broadcasts of National Hockey League games it airs on NBC and Versus, but also programming on the NHL's own cable network and digital properties. The deal puts "all of the NHL media assets under one roof," said Seth Winter, senior VP-ad sales, NBC Sports Group.

Although the National Basketball Association has in the past turned over some digital ad sales to Time Warner 's Turner, sports leagues and owners of major sports events typically oversee their own advertising relationships.

Approximately 14 NHL staffers will join in a combined venture under NBC Universal's sports group to sell TV and digital ad inventory surrounding hockey content from both parties, said John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer. "We wanted to share sales opportunities, both to protect our corporate partners and to create opportunities for our corporate partners to spend on NBC and Versus."

Still, the sports league won't cede control of its most important relationships with marketers. The NHL will continue to sell broader league-based sponsorship packages.

The venture springs from a unique pact the NHL signed recently with NBC Universal in April. That 10-year contract gives NBC Universal exclusive national rights to hockey broadcasts and video streaming online.

Under the ad sales pact that followed, NBC Universal's sports group will handle media sales for all national media venues featuring NHL content, including NBC, Versus, NBCSports.com, the NHL Network and all official NHL digital sites, including NHL.com. Additionally, all traffic generated by official NHL digital sites, including NHL.com, will now be attributed to NBC Sports Digital. The agreement continues through the 2015-2016 season.

The venture should help drive more ad money to hockey, Mr. Collins suggested, as NBC Sports can try to use its broadcasts of golf, "Sunday Night Football," the coming Super Bowl and Olympics to interest marketers in broader ad packages for its sports properties. On the digital front, the two might drive more eyeballs to hockey offerings online together than they might apart.

Other sports leagues do some of this type of side-by -side work, albeit in informal fashion. The National Football League, for instance, encourages its sponsors to buy TV time with Fox, CBS, ESPN and other media partners, said spokesman Brian McCarthy. The NFL isn't interested in going with just a single media partner, he said.

But advertisers can sometimes find the sheer number of players involved in crafting a sports advertising plan frustrating or daunting. "You have to try and execute something across multiple networks and league-owned media, and not everybody is in agreement on how to make that work," said Tom McGovern, managing director of Omnicom Group's Optimum Sports. The NHL's pact with NBC Universal will let buyers have "one conversation with one guy to build out programs that can live and have a consistent look and feel across all the entities and properties," he said.

The deal comes as NBC Universal strives to build its sports assets into a more competitive entity. Under Comcast, which purchased a majority stake in the media conglomerate earlier this year, the company has given signals that it would like use its sports-oriented Versus cable outlet to compete more heavily with Walt Disney's ESPN.

"Sports continue to play an extremely important role in people's media plans," Mr. Winter said. Because fans like to tune into games live, sports telecasts seem "pretty impervious to some of the technological advances that have created time- and place-shifting of other content. We see sports as one of the first things that advertisers want to shore up sponsorships."

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