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The NHL is considered one of the four major professional sports leagues in North America, along with Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association. The league is very prominent in Canada, where hockey is the most popular of these four major sports as alongside CFL. Overall, hockey has the smallest total fan base of the four leagues, the smallest revenue from television, and the least sponsorship.

The NHL holds one of the most affluent fan bases. Studies by the Sports Marketing Group conducted from 1998 to 2004 show that the NHL's fan base is much more affluent than that of the PGA Tour. A study done by the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2004, found that NHL fans in America were the most educated and affluent of the four major leagues. Further it noted that season-ticket sales were more prominent in the NHL than the other three because of the financial ability of the NHL fan to purchase them. According to Reuters in 2010, the largest demographic of NHL fans was highly sought after group males aged 18–34. The NHL estimates that half of its fan base roots for teams in outside markets. Beginning in 2008, the NHL began a shift toward using digital technology to market to fans to capitalize on this.

The debut of the Winter Classic, an outdoor regular season NHL game held on New Year's Day 2008, was a major success for the league. The game has since become an annual staple of the NHL schedule. This, along with the transition to a national "Game of the Week" and an annual "Hockey Day in America" regional coverage, all televised on NBC, has helped increase the NHL's regular season television viewership in the United States. These improvements led NBC and the cable channel Versus to sign a ten-year broadcast deal, paying US$200 million per year for both American cable and broadcast rights; the deal will lead to further increases in television coverage on the NBC channels.

This television contract has boosted viewership metrics for the NHL. The 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs saw the largest audience in the history of the sport "after a regular season that saw record-breaking business success, propelled in large part by the NHL's strategy of engaging fans through big events and robust digital offerings." This success has resulted in a 66 percent rise in NHL advertising and sponsorship revenue. Merchandise sales were up 22 percent and the number of unique visitors on the NHL.com website were up 17 percent during the playoffs after rising 29 percent in the regular season.

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