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Power Play: Fans Return to NHL in Record Numbers

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Most companies don't like to see their names abused in public.

And yet Monday night's thrilling finale to the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs saw some of the best hockey players in the world jostle, push, and slam each other into dasher board advertisements for brands such as Honda (HMC), McDonald's (MCD), Coca-Cola (KO) and Verizon (VZ).

Players even smashed into dasher ads for Tim Hortons (THI), the coffee and donut joint that's not well known in the U.S. but is considered a national treasure in Canada. The logo of its cross-border rival, Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN), was only a few feet away, ready for the next pummeling.

Why would sponsors pay good money for such apparent mistreatment?

Because sponsors go where the fans are. And after a lockout that cut the regular season almost in half, record numbers of National Hockey League fans made a beeline to hockey arenas and high-definition television sets across North America.

In other words, the NHL is on a breakaway with plenty of scoring opportunities over the next several years.

According to SportsBusiness Daily, the the average number of fans per regular-season NHL game was 17,768 in 2013, up roughly 2% from the previous season and besting the previous high of 17,460 set in 2008-2009. Across the league, 17 of 30 teams averaged 100% capacity or higher (possible by selling standing-room-only tickets) and only five clubs experienced a drop in attendance.

Not only did hockey fans shrug off any hard feelings from missing nearly four months of their favorite sport, but they also proved willing to absorb yet another steep rise in average ticket prices.

ESPN reports that non-premium NHL tickets rose 5.7% to $61.01 on top of a 4.8% increase a year ago. That's two years in a row that the NHL instituted the largest percentage increase in ticket prices among the Big Four professional sports leagues. The only solace for NHL devotees might be that an NFL game still costs more, at an average price of $78.38 in 2012.

Television audiences for NHL games were also way up this season. Compared with 2011-2012, viewership on Comcast (CMCSA)-owned NBC and NBC Sports Network rose by 15% and 18% respectively, the latter marking the NHL's highest tally for a national cable audience in 19 years.

Stock quotes in this article: CMCSA, TAP, KO, VZ, THI 

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