Why were 2016 Stanley Cup Playoff ratings so disappointing?

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SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12: Sidney Crosby #87 and the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

NHL--Sidney Crosby #87 and the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12: Sidney Crosby #87 and the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

When something doesn’t ring the ratings bell on television, it’s always fascinating how the incoming press release will spin it. With that, the headline from NBC Sports on the 2016 Stanley Cup Final: 

“2016 STANLEY CUP FINAL IS MOST-WATCHED NON-ORIGINAL SIX SERIES IN 15 YEARS”

So, uh, pop the champagne?

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Ad Age had a different read on the ratings:

The 2016 Stanley Cup Final was one of the lowest-rated National Hockey League title tilts since the sport returned to NBC 11 years ago. And while partisans can offer up more excuses for the weak turnout than there are gaps in Brent Burns' smile, the fact remains that hockey simply is no longer a consistent TV draw.

So let’s do a little Q&A on what these ratings mean for the NHL, NBC and being “a consistent TV draw” in the U.S.

Q. What were the ratings for the 2016 Stanley Cup Final?

The six-game series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks averaged a 2.3 rating and 3.948 million viewers. Game 6 drew 5.407 million viewers, which made it NBC’s “most-watched non-Original Six Stanley Cup Final game ever.” Sure.

Q. How does that compare to other recent Stanley Cup finals?

According to Sports Media Watch, the ratings for the series were down 28 percent in ratings and 29 percent in viewership from the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2015 series win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, which drew a 3.2 average rating and 5.6 million viewers through six games. It was down 23 percent and 21 percent from the Los Angeles Kings’ series win over the New York Rangers (3.0 rating, 5 million viewers). That series went five games.

It trumped the Los Angeles Kings’ win over the New Jersey Devils in six games, 1.8 rating and 3 million viewers over six games.

Q. So what happened to the Final ratings this season?

As usual, it all depends on the markets.

The Penguins averaged a monstrous 31.7 rating locally, but they’re the No. 23 TV market in the U.S.; in other words, a very large percentage of a comparatively small viewership was captivated. San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, by contrast, averaged a 7.0 rating locally, and is the No. 6 market in the U.S.

In contrast, the Golden State Warriors were averaging an 8.42 rating on cable – in February.

Q. How much did the Warriors impact the Sharks’ rating?

More than you’d expect.

Consider that Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final launched the series against the highest rated NBA game ever on cable, featuring the Warriors.

Consider how much media oxygen the Warriors sucked up, like on sports talk radio and well-read San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami writing exclusively about Steph Curry and the boys. It has to feel like the biggest story in town, and the Sharks were never getting there with the Warriors in the NBA Final. 

Consider how much time a casual fan can dedicate to watching sports in a given week in June, as the Warriors games were spaced out with the Sharks game in-between them.

There’s no doubt the Sharks had strong local support. But it could have been exponentially better had they been the only show in the championship round. Keep in mind that the Bay Area wasn’t even one of the top 10 local markets for the playoffs, including the Final.

Q. How much did the scheduling impact the ratings?

Greatly. From Ad Age:

Participating teams aside, the schedule itself did NBC Sports no favors, as the Pens-Sharks series hit the ice on the Monday after Memorial Day weekend, when TV viewing is about as depressed as it gets, outside of Christmas. Then Games 2 and 3 aired on cable net NBCSN, which only reaches about 70% of all U.S. TV homes, whereupon the ratings dropped accordingly. Lastly, Game 6 was scheduled for Sunday night, where it was forced to square off against HBO's biggest hit, "Game of Thrones." Pittsburgh's 3-1 clincher drew 5.41 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults 18-to-49, while the warring Westeros clans delivered a princely 7.6 million viewers and a 3.9 in the demo. 

(Please recall Game 2 of the Final was shuffled off to cable so NBC could air the season premiere of “America Ninja Warrior.” Your move, NBA!)

Consider this as well: For the first time in years, the NHL didn’t have a Stanley Cup Final game with the Belmont Stakes as a lead-in.

Q. OK, but how were the ratings for the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a whole?

The 89 games of the playoffs, stretched across NBC/NBCSN/CNBC/USA Network, averaged 1.227 million viewers.

The good news is that it’s the eighth straight year that it averaged more than 1.2 million viewers per game. The bad news is that those ratings were down 14 percent from last year on the same networks and down 15 percent from 2014.

Sports Media Watch reports that it’s the smallest average playoff audience since 2010.

Q. So, uh, what happened there? 

The first round and the playoff bubble happened.

There are a finite number of franchises that draw significant national ratings in the U.S. for the NHL. The Boston Bruins missed the playoffs. The Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings were all out in the first round.

While this was great for parity and allowed some new faces into the playoff spotlight, it wasn’t great news for ratings. Hence, a 15-percent drop from 2014, when the Rangers, Blackhawks and Kings were three of the four conference finalists.

Q. But this is really about the Blackhawks, right?

Well, yeah. Due respect to St. Louis, which posted very strong local ratings and would have trumped the numbers San Jose vs. Pittsburgh produced, but the Blackhawks are the current NHL ratings cash cow, as their number of outdoor games would indicate.

Consider that their third Stanley Cup win last season in Game 6 was the fourth-highest rated NHL game on record and that the Final as a whole averaged 5.551 million viewers, making it the second-highest rated Final since 1994.

So, like, give them a bye or something next season.

Q. Did “cord cutting” play any part of this?

No. NBC’s streaming numbers for the playoffs were impressive: 593,000 unique streamers on the NBC Sports app for the Final, up big from last year. That number’s tough to calculate because that’s anyone who streamed a second of the games, rather than average viewers.

Q. OK, so what's the good news about the NHL on U.S. television, if any?

Oh, there’s plenty, actually.

As Ad Age writes, regarding the advertising for the playoffs:

According to iSpot.tv estimates, NBC Sports booked approximately $45.8 million in ad sales revenue over the course of the Stanley Cup Final, with a good chunk of those dollars coming from auto, studios, insurance, financial services and quick-service restaurants.

That’s up from last season, per NBC.

Then there’s the fact that the bandwagon’s growing. Like in Chicago last season, which saw higher viewership than when this Blackhawks group first won the Cup in 2010. Like in Pittsburgh, which had higher viewership totals than in either of their Stanley Cup trips in 2008 and 2009.

The fact is that the NHL has established a baseline rating for NBC. Sometimes it’ll go up significantly, like for a Chicago vs. Boston series. Sometimes it’ll dip a little, as it did for the Kings and Devils.

But they don’t decline. That would be cause for concern.

Q. So what can I tell my friends about the NHL ratings this postseason?

Please don’t bother them until after the Warriors’ game. 

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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