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NHL could have sporting spotlight as NBA lockout drags

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - The National Hockey League (NHL) could have the North American sporting stage to itself if the National Basketball Association's (NBA) lockout drags into the New Year but the league has no plans to try and poach fans.

While the NHL launched a new season on solid footing on Thursday expecting to generate new records in attendance, TV ratings and sponsorship dollars, the NBA was staring at the prospect of prolonged labor dispute and a lost season as they try to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement.

If NBA owners and players are unable to reach a new deal it would present a rare opportunity for the NHL to engage casual sports fans and attract some media attention that would be otherwise be devoted to the NBA.

If there is no NBA on TV then casual fans may linger a little longer on NHL games rather than flipping right by to another channel and the thousands of sports bars across the United States may also be for forced to keep the dial on NHL.

"The NHL is going to get more exposure organically because with the NBA, there is only so much you can talk about," Paul Swangard, managing director, Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon told Reuters.

"Hockey is often not the first thing on the list and for awhile the NHL will be the lead story because there is still programing and newspapers that need to be filled."

For the NHL, one man's troubles may not necessarily be another man's opportunity.

The league maintains it will not specifically target NBA fans but is likely to see some crossover if the labor dispute, which began on July 1, drags on.

"There is a gentleman's agreement there will be no overt effort to take advantage but you would be silly not to believe the league is not going to at least put its best face forward to attract new customers," said Swangard.

STEADY GROWTH

The NHL expects to top the $3 billion mark in league-wide revenues for the first time this season, and with a new 10-year $2 billion U.S. TV deal with NBC Universal in place it is also expecting to see a major bump in viewership.

"The game is great, got a great group of young players, we're starting to hit our stride on the business side," NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins told Reuters.

"We do a lot of research over the summer, and what you hear even the sport fan who is not fully engaged in the NHL, there is nothing about the game that turns them off.

"We need to figure out a way to grab them."

With NBC/Comcast providing cross-channel promotion across many of its 20 TV channels and 42 Internet sites, the NHL will have no shortage of opportunities to reach out to fans.

All Stanley Cup playoff games will be televised nationally this season while a Thanksgiving Day game will be added to a lineup of marquee contests that includes the Winter Classic.

The NHL will also continue to focus on expanding its global brand launching seven new official websites in Czech, Finnish, French, German, Russian, Slovak and Swedish languages.

"Europe is where we see a huge opportunity going forward," said Collins. "I think there is still a lot of room for growth in North America but I think in Europe, hockey is an important game, the NHL is a great brand."

More time in the spotlight has also focused more attention on the NHL's problems.

Head injuries and fighting remain a lightning rod for controversy. Last year on ice violence sparked a sponsors revolt and fan outrage, which the NHL has been forced to address.

While ratings and revenues are up some markets continue to struggle and lose money.

"Any discussion about what is happening on the ice is at the core of everything we do," said Collins. "That allows the business to be strong.

"Whether it is fans or sponsors they want to know the league is in a leadership position and responding and I think we have been doing that."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)