June's Biggest Matchup: the NHL vs. the NBA

Has NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, a 12-year NBA veteran before his hockey job, yet been asked by some desperate journalist on deadline where he thinks LeBron James will end up after July 1? And if he answers, can NBA Commissioner David Stern, Bettman's longtime mentor, fine him?

Whether or not penalty dollars will change hands, the sport of the mentee is certainly giving the NBA a run for its money to capture the hearts and minds of sports fans this June. From Boston and Philly to Chicago and out west in L.A., the NBA Finals and the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals are creating more buzz than they have in many years.

Mainly, it's about the matchups, especially in the NBA. The last time the Los Angeles Lakers took on the Boston Celtics, in 2008, the series was the highest-rated finals in five years. The 2008 NBA Finals averaged 13.8 million viewers, a 52 percent increase over the same period in 2007. In 2008, ESPN's NBA section alone averaged 5 million page views over the course of the finals, a 79 percent increase over traffic from 2007.

Even though we think 2009 numbers should have been down from the 2008 Lakers-Celtics series, the Sunday Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Orlando Magic capped a season in which attendance and viewership were down but in which playoff games attracted a ratings block unseen outside of News Corp.'s (NWSA) FOX division's American Idol, proving that the NBA has staying power even when its top two teams don't meet for the championship. The 2009 Game 5 broadcast earned ABC a 7.9 rating and drew 13.9 million viewers. ABC for the finals averaged an 8.4 rating and 14.3 million viewers.

Big Basketball Draws

ESPN ranks the 1996 Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen), the 1987 Lakers (Magic Johnson, A.C. Green), and the 1986 Boston Celtics (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale) as the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 NBA playoff teams, respectively, of all time. In 2010, sports fans in L.A., Boston, and Chicago obviously once again have reason to celebrate.

So does ABC. Days before the NBA Finals tip off on June 3, ESPN had sold close to 99 percent of its ad inventory, and sales are clearly outpacing last year's finals series between the Lakers and the Orlando Magic. Advertising industry experts peg the cost of a 30-second spot in the NBA Finals at about $400,000. The league also claims, based on data it has collected, that nine of the top 10 rated programs on cable TV through May 24 were NBA games.

And this year, likely mindful of some little soccer tournament being pulled together in South Africa, the league is making sure the NBA Finals lives up to its "global" hype. The finals will be televised in 215 countries and territories in 41 languages, as well as streamed on NBA.com to more than 200 locations. Furthermore, 280 media representatives from 36 countries will cover the event, including a record 44 from Spain documenting the every move of the Lakers' Catalonian center Pau Gasol. And for the first time, the finals will be shown live in movie theaters across Mexico (thanks to a partnership with Cinepolis, Mexico's biggest Cineplex chain) as well as on TV. In Africa, just in case fans want to take a break from early matches in that ho-hum little soccer gathering, the finals will be broadcast on 15 free-to-air stations; the NBA opened its first African office, in Johannesburg, in May.

Who will win the merchandising game? While the Lakers' Kobe Bryant still boasts the NBA's top-selling No. 24 jersey, Celtics guard Rajon Rondo is coming on strong. Celtics marketers note that the team's 17 variations of Rondo jerseys sold in stores and online have netted $50,000 in sales, a 233 percent increase. Rondo's jersey is currently the 15th best seller in the league.

Ticket sales aren't too shabby, either—The Wall Street Journal puts the average resale price for a Game 1 ticket in Los Angeles at $1,071, about 52 percent higher than Phoenix would have pulled down had the Suns beaten the Lakers. In Boston, Celtics fans are looking at $591, on average.

Storied Hockey Clubs

Tickets for the Stanley Cup probably won't sell for as much. With no Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, this year's Cup Finals lack the star power the NHL hoped for. What the game loses without its top players, however, it gains with its lore.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers are two of the most storied clubs in league history. Adding to the intrigue, this year is the first time since 2001 that the teams meeting for Lord Stanley's Cup rank in the top 10 of NHL franchise values (the last such matchup being the Avalanche and the Devils). The Flyers are fifth at $273 million, and the Blackhawks are seventh at $258 million.

From Chicago's recent revival to Philadelphia's miraculous comeback against Boston, the finals are unfolding like a made-for-TV drama. Good timing, too. The league's broadcast contracts run out next season, and more money could be on the table.

Following on the heels of the Vancouver Olympic Games and featuring some red-hot matchups, TV hockey viewership in the U.S. is the "highest in eight years," according to the Associated Press. NBC averaged 1.89 million viewers for the playoffs' first three rounds.

More Fans Than Seats?

What's good over the airwaves is also good on the ground. The NHL has stated that arenas have been filled to 102 percent of capacity throughout the 2010 playoff run, according to the AP. (Yeah, we're not really sure how you can have 102 percent either, but that's what the NHL claims. Are people doubling up in the cheap seats?) Wednesday night's Blackhawks-Flyers Stanley Cup Final Game 3 at Wachovia Center was projected to generate $3 million in ticket sales and another $700,000 in concession revenue, roughly $2.3 million more than the Flyers "average for a regular season game," according to Comcast (CMCSA) subsidiary Comcast-Spectacor President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Luukko, who added that season ticket renewals are "through the roof." In Chicago, the Blackhawks have sold out 101 straight home games at United Center, and 8,000 fans are on a season ticket waiting list for next year. Peter Hassen, the Blackhawks' senior director of market development and community affairs, told the Chicago Tribune that "more than $50,000 worth of playoff merchandise has been sold at the Blackhawks' kiosk in Woodfield mall, Michigan Avenue store, and United Center outlets."

The NHL has also gained a handful of new sponsors, and merchandise sales at its flagship store in New York City and elsewhere are up dramatically. In a press conference last Friday, Commissioner Bettman said that overall league revenues are "projected to rise about four percent this season and hit record levels on the heels of a rise in sponsorships and in TV ratings."

Once the dust has settled, the Zamboni parked, and new champions crowned, we'll check back in to see who the winner was in the battle for revenue and ratings.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.