How the NHL got on a winning streak

Talk about getting a rebound right on your stick in front of the goal: The National Hockey League, whose popularity had been hurt by three work stoppages in recent years, now estimates it will generate $4 billion in revenue by the end of the 2015-2016 season. That's nearly double the $2.2 billion it earned in 2006, thanks to improved broadcast deals and savvy marketing of events such as the NHL Winter Classic, an outdoor game that takes place every year.

Most of the league's 30 teams are profitable because of limits on players' salaries instituted under the 2013 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NHL and the union representing its players, according to sports economists. Player salaries hit more than 75 percent of revenue by 2003-2004, but were cut down to 50 percent under the latest CBA. In previous years, some teams, particularly those in the South where hockey isn't traditionally part of the culture, were in precarious financial situations.

"For sure, fewer teams are losing money," said Victor Matheson, a professor at the College of Holy Cross, who specializes in sports economics, adding that although hockey remains far less popular than the National Football League or Major League Baseball, it can make plenty of money. "Having a strong niche in that sort of market can still make you wildly profitable," he noted.

Retail sales of NFL merchandise rose more than 10 percent last year, according to The Licensing Letter, indicating that fans may have gotten over their anger about the 2012-2013 lockout, which shortened the season to 48 games. Lockouts also occurred in the 2004-2005 and 1994-1995 seasons, and the league suffered a strike in 1992.

The NHL, however, is still feeling the effects of what many consider to be an ill-advised expansion into the South during the 1990s by Commissioner Gary Bettman, where a winter sport such as hockey has proven to be a tough sell. For instance, more than 21,000 fans on average attended The Chicago Blackhawks last season compared with the 13,776 fans who attended the Pheonix Coyotes, the 14,525 who watched the Florida Panthers and the 15,484 who rooted on the Carolina Hurricanes.

"The nontraditional, more Southern markets have enjoyed some success, but attendance is very volatile and heavily dependent on the quality of the product on the ice," said John Vrooman, a professor at Vanderbilt University. "This is not so much the case in the traditional (Original 6) markets particularly in Canada."

Though fans often pillory Bettman for the failed Southern expansion, some experts give him credit for getting the league better broadcast deals such as the 10-year, $2 billion agreement with Comcast's (CMCSA) NBC Sports in the U.S. and a 12-year, C$5.billon contract with Rogers Communications in Canada. Income from these deals could lay the groundwork for further expansion north of the border.

"The outdoor games and the new television contracts were the keys to their success," said Richard Powers, a senior lecturer at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, adding that Bettman deserves credit. "He has surrounded himself with some excellent people. ... I think he has done an amazing job."

During the most recent season, the NHL set records for attendance and TV ratings on NBC. The sport remains hugely popular in Canada, and viewers continue to flock to the long-running TV show "Hockey Night in Canada." Indeed, the Atlanta Thrashers, one of the expansion teams, moved to Winnipeg in 2011 and became the Winnipeg Jets, which had played in the Canadian city from 1972 to 1996.

However, media reports about potential expansion have prompted some experts to wonder if the NHL may soon repeat past mistakes.

"The best future would probably find an expansion club in Seattle and Quebec City," Vrooman said. "The other possible options of Las Vegas and a second club in Toronto would probably be problematic."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.