By Liana B. Baker
June 3 (Reuters) - NBC Sports is reaping an unexpected dividend from the $2 billion bet it made on hockey three years ago as the NHL prepares for a rarity in sports - a championship matchup between teams from New York and Los Angeles, TV's two largest markets.
U.S. ratings for the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals between the New York Rangers and the LA Kings have the potential to set a new record for the network, said Brad Adgate, research chief for media and advertising firm Horizon Media, though some media buyers say it will be hard to beat last year's Chicago Blackhawks win over the Boston Bruins in six games.
"It's not the Dodgers and Yankees or even Knicks and Lakers, but I think the ratings will be pretty strong, the best since NBC began covering the NHL in 2005," Adgate said.
The big-market matchup could not have come at a better time for the NHL as well as NBC Sports, which is owned by Comcast Corp. In 2011, the network signed a 10-year contract with the NHL, paying an estimated $1.8 billion to $2 billion to the league.
But at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, a labor dispute delayed the start of the season by three months, raising concerns that the casual American hockey fan would lose interest.
Despite the setback, the league showed signs of a quick comeback. Ratings increased for the 2013 Stanley Cup final making it the most watched final since 1994, and the NHL increased its TV exposure by expanding its roster of outdoor games, including two matchups featuring New York area teams staged at Yankee Stadium. It also introduced a fresh playoff format to set up more games among traditional rivals.
When the puck drops Wednesday for the Stanley Cup Final series between the Kings and the Rangers, the league looks healthy and its momentum is likely to build.
Teams from two largest U.S. TV markets have not faced off in a final of a major sport since 1981, when the LA Dodgers played the New York Yankees in baseball's World Series.
"It's been 33 years since you've had an LA-New York matchup," said Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. "Those always attract a lot of attention and focus."
This year, total viewers in the first three rounds of the playoffs rose 11 percent from the previous year, according to Nielsen Research, at least in part because of competitive series and lots of overtime play. Advertising inventory is "pretty much all gone," NBC's Miller said.
"Sponsors have to be happy with how compelling the NHL playoffs have been to date. Tight series, massive comebacks, great rivalries and overtime sudden-death hockey is unlike anything in sports," said Michael Neuman, managing partner of Scout Sports and Entertainment, the firm that negotiated Geico's NHL sponsorship deal.
NBC's Miller said a matchup between New York and Chicago, which lost to LA, might have driven higher ratings because Chicago has a larger hockey fan base than LA. Still, the LA Kings, which won the Stanley Cup in 2012, has a young and growing fan base, and the series has the potential to attract more casual viewers who want to sample hockey.
While ratings for the National Hockey League are strong in Canada, fewer Americans follow the sport. U.S. ratings trail those for the three other major professional U.S. sports - football, basketball and baseball.
Miller said ratings for Game 2 of the NHL championship series should benefit from Saturday's running of the Belmont Stakes horse race just before the hockey game. At the Belmont, California Chrome could become first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown of top races. In 2008, the last time a horse was vying for the Triple Crown, 13.1 million people tuned in, NBC said.
"In a perfect world, we'll have California Chrome winning the Triple Crown by a nose and then a big awards ceremony which goes right into Stanley Cup Game 2," Miller said.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker; Editing by Ronald Grover, Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)