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Power Play: Fans Return to NHL in Record Numbers

The 2013 Stanley Cup Finals reached an average of 5.76 million viewers. The concluding Game 6 was watched by 8.16 million people, a 66% increase over 2012. Game 6 was the third-most watched NHL game since 1995 and a Game 7, which seemed probable until a fateful 17-second span at the end of Game 6, would likely have broken more records.

Next year, the NHL hopes to capitalize on higher fan interest by expanding the number of outdoor games from one to six. In addition to the Winter Classic, which has been a bonanza for television ratings and ticket sales, there will be a new, four-game Stadium Series sponsored by Coors Light, flagship brand of the Molson Coors Brewing Co. (TAP - Get Report) as well as a Heritage Classic between two Canadian teams.

With more fans than ever donning oversized jerseys to support their teams, either at the rink or at home, NHL revenue has climbed accordingly. NHL revenue for 2013 is expected to be about $2.4 billion, down from last year's $3.2 billion, but a significant number considering fewer than 60% of regular-season games were played.

Over the next three seasons, the league expects to add another $1 billion, thanks largely to the new outdoor games, renegotiated media rights deals, and increased sponsorships.

There once was a time when the NHL was considered a poor, distant cousin to the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association. Though it will be a while before the NHL comes close to generating annual revenue on par with the top moneymakers, the NFL ($9.5 billion) and MLB ($7.5 billion), the league is coming closer to the NBA ($5 billion). Clearly, "poor" and "distant" no longer apply.

And for that, the NHL has to thank its legions of devoted and deep-pocketed fans. Despite lengthy lockouts and jacked-up prices, hockey fans have shown they can take a significant amount of abuse. Just like those dasher boards.

At the time of publication, the author had no positions in stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Doug Mollenauer mixes writing, running and traveling with bouts of technology product marketing and consulting. An East Coast native, he now resides in Santa Cruz, Calif., where the surfboard by his front door is just for show. He holds an M.A. from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. from Amherst College.
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