At the end of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Peacock had something to crow about.
The 8.54 million viewers who tuned in to NBC for Game 7 between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks gave the NHL its largest U.S. television audience for any game in 38 years. The series as a whole attracted an average of 4.6 million viewers per game on NBC and the then-VERSUS network, making it "the most-watched combined network/cable Stanley Cup involving a Canadian team ever." So there's that.
It's completely, utterly getting ahead of ourselves to say that the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings will meet for the Stanley Cup in 2012, despite their emphatic Game 1 wins. But the tantalizing notion that the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 markets could battle on the NHL's biggest stage has some theorizing that the ratings could set records.
But Steve Lepore of Puck The Media thinks it's time we all slow our roll on that theory in a post titled "New York and Los Angeles Are Not the Key to Record NHL Ratings, Even if Everyone Keeps Telling You It Is."
Lepore's take: "Those two markets are just not at the right level to bring in record ratings at this point. It had better be a great series, or else it might be diehards only until at least Game 5."
First off, let's note that local ratings are still the driving force for the NHL's national numbers. This was true in last year's Cup Final, with enormous ratings from New England moving the needle nationally. So what happens in New York and LA would determine the ratings for the U.S., in theory.
Lepore's argument against the Ranger' ratings — with which we disagree — is that the media market is so crowded with baseball, the NBA Playoffs, the constant football talk and other entertainment options vying for attention that the Rangers could be swallowed up.
It's true that this isn't 1994 — there isn't a Messier-level rock star on the team, and there isn't a 54-year Cup drought on the line. But if the Rangers make the Stanley Cup Final, expect New York to tune in. The city loves a winner, even if hockey is beaten by the Knicks and Yankees in the ratings.
Los Angeles is proving even more problematic. There are simply fewer diehard hockey fans in LA, and even more storylines hurting the Kings potential for ratings glory. Both the Lakers and Clippers are still in the post-season, and basketball has always been LA's first love. The Dodgers are riding the Magic Johnson-purchase-led resurgence, the Angels are a bloody fascinating mess with Albert Pujols on their squad.
It shows in the numbers. A 2.1 for Game 1 of the Western Conference Final simply isn't going to cut it for the #2 television market. Even more upsetting is that's a record for NBC Sports Network. Which is double upsetting, because VERSUS once televised two games of an Anaheim Ducks Stanley Cup Final. Los Angeles seems like another market where winning next year after a great run this year would be better.
In essence, the Kings are still in the process of captivating the casual fan during this quasi-Cinderella run. Sam Flood of NBC told the Press Telegram last week that the Kings' bandwagon could fill up like the ones in Chicago and Boston:
Flood said the halo effect is a resurgence of hockey in markets such as Chicago and Boston during their Stanley Cup championship runs the past two seasons, which could happen with the L.A. market. That, as opposed to TV ratings, is how he measures the success of the current media rights deals.
"It's not trying to get any demographic or chase this audience or that one," he said. "It's about hockey being the topic of conversation, being true to the game. You cover it, and honor the sport and see how great it continues to be. You get more people engaged.
"Hockey went to the backburner for a time in Chicago and Boston, and now, nothing is hotter. That's what happens when you catch the fever. That's happening in L.A. even when there are two basketball teams in the playoffs. We realize they have a lot bigger fan base, and they can catch the bug and be passionate fans."
The next two weeks as critical for the Kings' buzz should they make it through the West. Famous people are watching the games. Famous athletes are contributing to the team's momentum, like this:
(Granted, the local media can't figure out the difference between the Kings and the Kings, but baby steps …)
It wouldn't surprise us to see a series like this met with apathy in a lot of corners of the U.S., given the teams' style of play and the lack of a clear face and heel. Rooting against Sidney Crosby, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Vancouver Canucks draws in viewers; the lines are a little more blurred in this matchup, should it happen.
(An aside: Would Philadelphia tune in to cheer on Richards and Carter against the hated Rangers?)
Lepore's right: Blockbuster ratings shouldn't be assumed here. The duration of the series will go a long way in determining that, along with the amount of eyes the Kings draw in Los Angeles. The good news for the NHL is that the buzz is building - even The Hollywood Reporter is getting in on it.