In the early 1990s, the NHL seemed poised to reach the same heights as the National Basketball Association, National Football League and Major League Baseball. By 1994, the sport had scored its the first network TV coverage in years.
Fox tried to broaden hockey's appeal with cool on-air promos to foster NHL's core 18-to-34 male demographic. The network also tried to address the age-old complaint that hockey's presentation on TV has been lackluster, jazzing up the sport with a "glowing" puck to help the viewer follow the game.
The league then stepped in, with expansion teams in the West and the South, and by 1999, the NHL had lured a total $300 million in annual sponsorships, up from $25 million five years earlier.
Ratings also started to rise, albeit slowly. In the network's first year broadcasting hockey, the '94-95 regular season, NHL games averaged a 2.0 rating and inched up to a 2.1 in '95-96. At the time, the NHL "went through a phase where they looked as though they were going to take off," said Steve Grubbs, exec VP-national broadcast at BBDO Worldwide, New York.
But the momentum didn't last. By 1999, ratings had fallen to an average 1.5. Worse still, last season's Stanley Cup championship round witnessed a 13% drop in its key demographic.
ABC and ESPN this season start a new contract, whose approach is to tone down broad-based marketing attempts and instead target hockey's existing core audience.
"We have found in our research that the fans really don't know the game that well," said Artie Bulgrin, VP-research and sales development for ESPN. So the ABC-ESPN partnership started running a series of vi-gnettes called "The Rules," explaining face-offs, penalties and other details of the game.
But analysts believe the NHL also needs to use its sponsors to help market its players.
"With the exception of Anheuser-Busch, Dodge and, to some extent Wendy's, I don't see NHL sponsors implementing into their advertising any national creative, as well as doing some sweepstakes and promotion," said Eric Bechtel, VP-marketing for SFX Sports, a sports marketing company.
Reaching young fans and potential young NHL viewers is another hurdle for the league. "People don't grow up with [hockey] in this country," said one TV programming executive. In recent years, the NHL has been trying to address that issue by running in-line skating street hockey tournaments as well as donating hockey sticks and balls and providing instruction in floor hockey to kids.
The NHL already has seen hints of better days to come. Attendance at games is running 2% higher than last year. ABC's recent broadcast of the league's all-star game posted a Nielsen Media Research rating of 2.7 -- up 19% from a year ago. An ESPN Sunday night game Feb. 13 pulled a 1.0, the highest-rated telecast of the season so far. But that's still well below the typical 3 to 4 rating an NBA game draws on cable.
Ed Horne, group VP-marketing for NHL Enterprises, said the ABC-ESPN partnership is better for the league's future than the Fox deal.
"ABC promoted the all-star game in prime time, on `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,' `NYPD Blue,' and even on `The View,' " he said. "Cross-promotion is a big issue for us," he said, adding that Fox hadn't promoted the NHL in its prime-time programming.