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Is The NHL Really Still the No. 4 Sport?

The NHL is a pro-sports afterthought that ESPN begrudgingly acknowledges and that little more than a masochistic niche of die-hards miss when it's gone. Its $3.3 billion in annual revenue is an absolute joke compared with the nearly $10 billion amassed by the NFL and roughly $8 billion brought in by Major League Baseball. When AskMen listed its most profitable sports leagues a few years back, not only was the NHL not there, but the site felt it had to explain that the NHL lagged so far behind the other organizations on the list that it didn't merit inclusion.

That's because, as Forbes noted before the lockout -- the NHL's fourth work stoppage in the past 20 years -- the league has only about five teams that actually make money. The Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers combined to make $212 million during the 2010-11 season; the other 25 teams lost $86 million that same season.

So what keeps the NHL up in that Big Four with Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA? Part of it is that people keep watching. Back in 2011, the NHL signed a 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC that, while lagging behind other television sports packages, gives the NHL steady television revenue that hasn't exactly been a given throughout its existence.

As it turns out, high-definition and the NHL Center Ice out-of-town games package has done what Fox's robots, glowing pucks and comet tails couldn't -- and made hockey a great television sport. Ratings for the early rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been down from last year and are still getting crushed almost 5-to-1 by the second round of the NBA Playoffs, but have been on par with or better than Major League Baseball and professional golf. In core markets such as New York and Minnesota, however, ratings have been huge, with the wild's opening-round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks pulling a 10.13 rating in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

If the NHL had actually learned zero lessons from its lockouts and from the Bettman era in general, that wouldn't be happening. Instead, the league has decided to embrace the cold-weather markets that love it and cozy up to the warm-weather markets that have caught on, giving casual fans in each the thing they've found most exciting about the NHL in recent years: outdoor games. After a stretch of New Year's Day Winter Classics in Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston, the NHL is not only making up its scratched Red Wings-Leafs game in Ann Arbor, but has scheduled a game between the Blackhawks and Penguins at Chicago's Soldier Field and another between the Anaheim Ducks and reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium in one of the few warm-weather markets where hockey has actually taken off.
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