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NHL Begins Struggle to Lure Back Fans and Sponsors

Devastated League Lost $460 Million During Lockout

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NEW YORK ( -- After spending 301 days in a labor lockout that closed the sport, the National Hockey League now has less than three months to lure back a disenfranchised fan base, persuade corporate partners and sponsors to continue their support and sign a new TV deal.

Photo: AP
Jay McKee of the Buffalo Sabres and Michael Peca of the New York Islanders on the ice practicing on their own in June during the lockout. It is now not clear how fast fans or crucial advertisers and sponsors will return to the sport.
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Deadlock broken
The league and the players association reached agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement July 13, ending a 10-month lockout that resulted in the cancellation of the 2004-05 season --- the first North American pro sports league to lose an entire season due to labor strife.

The league lost more than $400 million in ad revenue and $60 million in rights fees from a one-year contract with Walt Disney Corp.'s ESPN when it officially canceled the season in February. In May, ESPN declined to pick up its option with the league, saying it would only carry hockey if the NHL entered into the same agreement it has with national broadcast partner NBC: no rights fees and a split of the advertising revenue.

ESPN's executive vice president for programming and productions, Mark Shapiro, left the door open, however, saying he would do a rights fee deal for a figure "definitely south" of $60 million. The NHL initially rejected that, and the league has since had conversations with other cable partners including Spike TV and USA Network, which is part of NBC Universal.

Marketers budgets
But a deal will have to be done soon to appease marketers who are already finishing up buying third-quarter scatter market and are ready to commit fourth-quarter dollars somewhere.

"Bottom line," said a marketing chief from one of the league's corporate partners, "is we need to know a destination to start mapping out some strategy."

The NHL is planning its own major marketing campaign, but it will not debut until at least September, when team training camps open. Ten years ago, when a similar lockout caused the NHL to lose half of its 1994-95 season, the league came back with a campaign entitled "Game On!"

"The plan is that the more significant marketing or advertising activity wouldn't kick in until we get closer to the start of the season," said Ed Horne, president of NHL Enterprises. "We'll be really focused on the fans, and if that sounds obvious, well, given the patience and support they've shown the last year we owe it to them. We've got work to do as we re-engage with our fans."

Sponsorship support unclear
Mr. Horne said that none of the league's corporate partners had backed out. But it still remains to be seen how the marketers plan to leverage their sponsorships and to what lengths they will take their activations.

Already there has been a trickle-down effect: Bank of America, though not a corporate partner of the NHL, ended its sponsorship of the Columbus (Ohio) Blue Jackets.

One thing that might entice marketers is the return of the fans. Always an iffy proposition in the wake of labor disputes, it appears that hockey fans are already responding to the new deal. Dallas Stars President Jim Lites said the club sold 56 season ticket packages in the six hours after the news trickled out July 13. A day later in Tampa, the Lightning sold a half-million dollars worth of season tickets, mini-plans and luxury suite packages in one day.

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