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The International Hockey League is one of the fastest growing pro sports leagues in North America. And it's about time.

"We're a 50-year-old professional sports league that's only three years mature," said Greg Elliot, IHL director of marketing.

But the time is right to be "mature." Hockey in the U.S. is hot-literally-as stickplay without ice gains popularity. And in the past year, the bigger, better-known National Hockey League has gotten its marketing act together, luring a TV deal with Fox and sponsors like Anheuser-Busch and Nike.

The IHL hasn't been sitting back idle either. Mr. Elliot was hired last year to package the league's 19 teams for national marketing opportunities. Last month, the IHL announced sponsorship agreements with Coca-Cola Co.; Anheuser-Busch's Bud Ice; Canstar, the hockey equipment company owned by Nike; and Starter Corp. All these marketers are also players in the NHL.

Earlier this month, the IHL forged a deal with SportsChannel Regional Networks, which has committed to aggressively promoting the league.

More deals are on the way. The IHL will soon announce it has retained Sony Signatures to manage and grow its already thriving $25 million licensing business. Mr. Elliot said several deals are in the works. Other sources said a deal with AT&T is imminent.

League attendance for the 1994-95 season topped 6 million, almost double the previous season. Its new TV deal with SportsChannel will take the league to 22 million viewers; in markets that SportsChannel doesn't reach, Prime Networks or a local affiliate can carry IHL games. The IHL is committed to adding two teams each year for five years.

Minor league values

The IHL positions itself as a major league sports entity with minor league entertainment values and prices. The league's marketing-friendly labor agreement calls for salary cap restrictions and allows for an average ticket price of $10.

IHL sponsors look to the league for a grass-roots supplement to their national NHL programs. Coca-Cola bought into the IHL for a street hockey program-Coca-Cola/IHL Street Stars-currently testing in eight markets. Bud Ice will create national consumer promotions and IHL-theme TV spots that will run during games on SportsChannel and in other programs in IHL markets.

Competing with the NHL

Mr. Elliot said the two leagues compete head-to-head in only two markets, Chicago and Detroit. That rivalry could intensify, though, if the IHL grows too strong-if, for example, the NHL poaches a thriving IHL market. That was the case recently in Denver, which saw the NHL's Quebec Nordiques move to the Mile High City to become the Colorado Avalanche, forcing the IHL's successful Denver Grizzlies to depart for Salt Lake City.

"We're the same sport but two different, albeit complementary, products," said Rick Dudley, senior VP-chief operating officer at NHL Enterprises. "Sponsors view each of us differently and participate with each of us differently. I think there's great opportunity for us to work together and grow the sport and our businesses."

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