With due respect to the Anaheim Ducks, NBC is probably still cleaning up the champagne that was spilled when the Chicago Blackhawks advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.
Two of the three highest rated games on NBC since the network took over NHL coverage from ESPN on 2006 involved the Blackhawks: The 8.279 million viewers that watched them win the Cup in Game 6 against the Flyers in June 2010, and the 8.16 million viewers that watched them top Boston in Game 6 in June 2013. The only game to top those? A Game 7 between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks in June 2011, the dramatic ending to one of the most contentious series in NHL history.
So Chicago watches when the Blackhawks are in the Cup Final. Game 6 against Boston? That produced a 30.2 rating in Chicago.
When the Blackhawks aren’t in the Cup Final? Yeah, not so much: Game 5 of the 2014 Final between the Rangers and Kings produced a 5.4 rating in Chicago. Same thing goes for Boston: 33.0 rating for Game 6 against the Blackhawks, and a 6.3 rating for the Rangers and Kings.
That’s what hockey fans are known for in the postseason: Turning off the television and getting their summer on instead of watching the pucks fly deep into the playoffs. That's why the NHL desperately needs a massive local audience from at least one of the Stanley Cup Final participants in order to have a respectable rating.
The good news for the NHL: Ever since bottoming out with a 1.2 overall rating in the Ducks’ 2007 Cup Final win over the Ottawa Senators – the lowest rated Final on record – they’ve been lucky with the matchups. Two battles between Detroit and Pittsburgh. Chicago vs. Philly. Boston, bringing a massive New England audience. Los Angeles vs. New Jersey, a lackluster series that came in at a 1.8. Chicago vs. Boston. LA vs. New York. And now, Chicago again.
The bad news is that they still are way too reliant on having that massive local audience carry the national rating.
Which brings us back to our original question: Why don’t more American hockey fans watch the Final?
Internal research from the NHL suggests that hockey fans are “the most tribal” when it comes to postseason viewership. Hockey fans aren’t as engaged in the championship round as the “Big Four” if their team isn’t involved, or if they don’t have a rooting interest.
We're not talking about casual sports fans that dip in when there's a Game 7. We're talking engaged hockey fans who watch games during the season, interact on social media, but don't count themselves among Blackhawks or Lightning fans.
These are “neutral fans,” and they’re the heart of the problem for the NHL and its U.S. ratings ceiling.
“It may be that neutral NHL fans don’t watch the Cup Final as much as NBA or MLB fans watch their respective championships. From what I’ve seen over the years it's easier for the NBA Finals or World Series to earn big numbers in neutral markets than it is for the Stanley Cup Final — Buffalo, Boston/Providence and Minneapolis the main exceptions,” said Paulsen, the founder of Sports Media Watch.
“I suspect the NHL is more of a regional attraction — i.e., fans care primarily about their own team. Neutral NBA fans have an intense interest in LeBron James, much as neutral MLB fans had in the New York Yankees when they were contending. I don’t think there’s as much interest among neutral NHL fans in teams like the Blackhawks or Rangers.”
Which is, of course, maddening for the NHL. The Blackhawks should be the Yankees of their era. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are stars. So is Steven Stamkos. They shouldn’t be ‘famous for hockey’ but famous in sports.
This was the contention of the New York Times last season as well:
One ingredient that is missing from N.H.L. viewership is a collection of crossover stars who can bring in a lot of casual fans to the postseason.
“We have a lot of players who are must-see appointment television,” Olczyk said, but probably too few leap over the boards and into the living rooms of those who are not die-hard hockey fans.
The Celebrity DBI, an index that assesses the appeal of athletes and entertainers in a broad array of characteristics, gives longtime stars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin middling scores of 40.66 and 39.77, and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the star of an Advil commercial campaign, a 37.81.
The top DBI among N.H.L. players was charted by Wayne Gretzky, who last played 15 years ago. His 74.77 score was boosted by an awareness level that comes from redefining his sport.
So the NHL is working hard to create these stars and prestige teams and make them mandatory viewing for fans that aren’t rooting for a particular team in the Final. It’s part of the League’s attempt to build interest “on a national scale” in the U.S., a strategy that also includes Rivalry Night on NBC, the various outdoor games and the current structure of the playoff system to lends itself to brackets.
“The NHL probably needs a real national star to break through,” said Paulsen. “The league would probably be better off if Crosby’s Penguins were having the sustained run that the Blackhawks are currently on.”
Based on the numbers, Paulsen estimates that “there is a ceiling for NHL ratings in the U.S. — probably a 6.0 rating and 9 or 10 million viewer” and that it would take a Game 7 between two major markets to hit that number.
Humbling as this is, that highest viewership total for the NHL would equal the lowest rated NBA Final game in 23 years, Game 2 between the Nets and Spurs in 2003.
Look, I can’t figure it out. The NHL can’t figure it out. Media analysts can’t figure it out. There are millions of sports fans with an affinity for hockey that simply don’t watch the Stanley Cup Final.
Is it apathy for the matchup, without a rooting interest? Is it a lack of star power? Is it a lack of clear, compelling storylines? Is it because the ESPN drones aren’t watching anything their network doesn't tell them to watch?
Is it because watching ice hockey in summertime June temps is something our brains can't compute.
If you’re a hockey fan that checks out for the Stanley Cup Final, we’d like to hear from you in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, consider this your official call to arms:
If you’re in a market that you believe isn’t giving the Stanley Cup Final its due, contact your local TV station news director or newspaper sports section editor.
Correspond often. Be respectful. Get your friends to do the same.
You will be amazed how a few notes from disgruntled consumers can feel like a groundswell. And you will be amazed how your local sports media creates more space or time for hockey because of that groundswell.
In the words of Reg Dunlop, Let’em Know You’re There.
Oh, and then watch the games. That too.
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