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NHL Eyes 5 Nights of an Empty Ratings Net as NBA Takes Breather

With the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs deliveries already at a record high, the league now has a rare chance to own the sports-media landscape for the next five nights.

Heading into Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on TNT, the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars will square off tonight with little in the way of televised competition. As the NBA Finals won’t tip off until June 6, hockey is all but playing against an empty TV net, as the biggest sports and entertainment ball-hogs will be sidelined.

Through the first four games of the Oilers-Stars series, TNT and its cable sibling truTV are averaging 1.66 million viewers per telecast, up 2.3% compared to the analogous stretch of the year-ago Stars-Golden Knights set on ESPN/ABC.  While those deliveries are solid, especially in light of the ongoing decline in pay-TV subscribers, they’re also nearly 30% lower than what the Disney networks have been scaring up with their Rangers-Panthers series.

Fortunately for TNT Sports, there isn’t much on the tube to detract from Friday night’s hockey game. But for a fresh installment of the RuPaul-hosted game show Lingo on CBS, which bowed last week to 1.77 million viewers, the Big Four broadcasters are in summer repeats mode. Outside of Lingo—and sure, the overlap in the Venn diagram of hockey fans and RuPaul enthusiasts probably looks like a toppled snowman—the only new stuff on the airwaves tonight is an episode of the WWE’s SmackDown, which averages 2.28 million viewers on Fox.

On the live sports front, the NHL will have to contend with Ion’s WNBA doubleheader (Mystics-Liberty, Mercury-Lynx). Last Friday, the channel drew 724,000 viewers with its coverage of a Fever-Sparks game that featured No. 1 draft pick Caitlin Clark against No. 2 Cameron Brink. As always, the RSNs pose the biggest threat to nationally televised sporting events this time of year, as the cumulative impact of local baseball coverage is likely exact its pound of flesh in major markets such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco.

If there’s not too much on TV to distract fans from the gleeful anxiety attack that is playoff hockey, the multiplex also isn’t likely to put up much of a fight. With a total of $128.3 million in ticket sales, the Memorial Day Weekend box office marked the lowest theatrical haul for the four-day break in 29 years.

Outside of a guaranteed seventh game, ESPN/ABC couldn’t ask for more from its stewardship of the Rangers-Panthers series. Through the first four games, the Eastern Conference finals are averaging 2.16 million viewers per night, up 33.5% versus Florida’s year-ago sweep of the Hurricanes on TNT. The Panthers pummeled their way to a 3-2 series lead in New York last night, but if the Rangers can force a seventh frame with a win in Saturday prime, the only thing standing between Bristol and absolute ratings dominance is some collegiate-level baseball and softball action on two of ESPN’s sibling networks.

Heading into the conference finals, NHL playoff deliveries were at a record high, and up nearly 10% versus the year-ago period. Through Thursday night’s Rangers loss, the league’s TV partners have generated $69.2 million worth of in-game ad revenue, thanks in large part to heavy spend from the likes of automakers (Lexus, Honda), telcos (AT&T, Verizon), insurance companies (Geico, Progressive, Liberty Mutual) and fast-food chains (Taco Bell, Domino’s, Chipotle).

If the Blueshirts can manage to bluster their way past the Swamp Kitties, the NHL will bask in what amounts to treble-bonus. Not only does this season mark the Stanley Cup Final’s return to broadcast TV after the first all-cable championship a year ago, but the inclusion of an Original Six franchise repping the nation’s largest media market (New York boasts 7.6 million TV homes, accounting for 6.1% of the U.S. base) certainly would be a welcome development.

While it’s obviously a pinecones-to-pineapples comparison, given the contraction of the linear-TV market over the last decade, New York’s most recent trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 put up relatively massive numbers on the NBC flagship. Per Nielsen, the Rangers’ no-show effort against the Kings averaged 5.74 million viewers on NBC proper, an average marred only by the now-defunct cabler NBCSN’s usual under-performance in Games 3 and 4. All told, the five-game series averaged 4.7 million viewers; by way of comparison, last year’s Vegas-Florida tilt drew just 2.6 million viewers on TNT/truTV.

The puck drops on the 2024 Stanley Cup Final June 8, on ABC.

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