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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to a reporter as he walks the red carpet at the National Hockey Legue awards in Las Vegas. (Ryan Remiorz)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to a reporter as he walks the red carpet at the National Hockey Legue awards in Las Vegas. (Ryan Remiorz)

Bettman says NHL is strong Add to ...

While the recession has battered many American sports, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said his league has remained strong, due to increasing viewership and advertising opportunities.

"While we are under no illusions about a difficult economic environment, we seem to be weathering it fairly well," he said in an interview with Reuters at Boston's Fenway Park.

After record attendance and revenue the previous season, the momentum continued with high levels of viewership and fan support this year, Bettman said. Game seven of the Stanley Cup Final captured the biggest NHL audience in 36 years.

Bettman pointed to the league's season ticket renewal rate, which at 83 per cent is above this time last year, as a sign of the league's health. He said he expects season ticket sales for the coming year to be "at least at high as last year's levels."

Last season, the NHL saw regular-season attendance of 21.5 million, the fourth straight record year. Bettman said in January he expected revenue this year to top last season's record of more than $2.6-billion (all currency U.S.).

Advertiser interest was evident in the most recent Winter Classic game, which saw more sponsors and more money spent than in 2008, Bettman said. The game, at Chicago's Wrigley Field, sold out all of the nearly 41,000 tickets in less than an hour.

More sponsors are expected for Boston's 2010 event at Fenway Park, he said, after the 2009 Winter Classic was the most-watched regular season game for the NHL in 34 years.

The event gave the NHL a starring role on New Year's Day, said Bettman. "We are now the focal point of a day that was all about college football," he said. "Now it's all about us."

The recession has hit many sports leagues, forcing the National Football League and National Basketball Association to cut jobs, Major League Baseball to freeze budgets and the Arena Football League to cancel its 2009 season.

The NHL has not entirely escaped the effects of the downturn, however, as some individual teams have struggled financially.

In May, the Phoenix-based Coyotes filed for bankruptcy, and an auction for the money-losing team will be held on Aug. 5, limited to bidders planning to keep the team in Arizona.

In April, creditors Hicks Sports Group, which owns the NHL's Dallas Stars as well as the Texas Rangers baseball team, defaulted on $525-million in loans.

Bettman declined comment on either of the team's financial situations.

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