Life for NHL fans living away from their home cities just got a little better. The NHL recently announced a partnership with IPTV provider NeuLion to offer out-of market games online at NHL.com and individual team websites. The deal brings the NHL one step closer to freedom from the shackles of broadcast networks.

The NHL has had an audience problem since the lockout two years ago when ESPN found that replacement programming in many cases generated higher ratings, and fans for the most part didn’t seem to care.

ESPN passed on their $60 million option to continue covering hockey, and the league partnered with Versus cable network, available in far fewer homes.

Ratings wise, numbers for the NHL are awful. When the league moved from ESPN/ABC after the strike the All Star game drew a 0.7/ (474,298 HHs) cable Nielsen rating on Versus, down 76.1% from the 1,985,000 HHs ABC drew in ’04.

Regular season game ratings are so bad that NASCAR, poker, Arena football and the WNBA routinely get a larger audience. This year NBC bumped a NHL Finals game that went into overtime so as not to preempt coverage of the Preakness.

But faced with a TV deal serving fewer fans, the NHL unlike other leagues has warmed to new media. Days after MLB suggested that they may sue SlingMedia for allowing users to stream content from their cable box, the NHL became the first professional league to partner with them.

Now, fans of all 30 teams can expect greater access to their teams through an online video offering similar to IslandersTV, already powered by NeuLion (below) which adds live video to the complete game archives, highlights and other exclusive content in NHL.com’s existing video offering.

IslesTV

And there are a ton of great user-generated mashups out there, fully supported by the NHL, (most of them reels of ‘greatest fights’ like the video below) which would have been removed long-ago if the content was from MLB or the NFL.

But what is most unique about NeuLion as a partner – aside from the fact that NeuLion CEO Nancy Li is married to the President of the Islanders – is their strength in IPTV solutions, specifically set-top boxes which enable distribution of near-broadcast quality video over public internet to the television. NeuLion already delivers niche television content such as Chinese television stations into US homes.  Delivering national hockey games across the country should be no problem.

In the near future it will be possible for the NHL and other premium content providers to cut existing television networks out of the equation entirely, a shift which could result in a better experience both for leagues and for viewers.  Die-hard fans unable to watch their team because of network television restrictions will surely welcome the change.
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