Stanley Cup Ratings Steady as NHL Revenue Rebounds on ESPN/ABC Deal

·8 min read

If at some point you find yourself running a television network that leases the rights to air the Stanley Cup Final, there are three conditions necessary to make the Nielsen dials sizzle:

1) Try to get one of the Original Six franchises on board. Better still, seeing as how neither the Canadiens nor the Maple Leafs have home-market representation in these United States, see what you can do about getting the Rangers, Bruins, Blackhawks and/or the Red Wings involved in some meaningful way. Since the century began, the five most-watched NHL championship series have featured at least one of those four teams, and the top draw in the last twenty-something years was a dream matchup between the Bruins and Blackhawks, in 2013.

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2) Inclusion is nice and all, but let’s take the above qualifier about the two Canadian O6 clubs and extend it to all who call the area north of the 49th parallel home. They have pictures of birds on their money up there, and it’s weird. More to the point, Canadian teams = ratings death. Disregarding the pandemic-blighted Finals of 2020 and 2021, the three least-watched series were those that included a club hailing from the Great White North. Also, under Canada’s criminal code, if you “alarm Her Majesty” or otherwise startle or put out bad vibes to the Queen of England, you have to go to jail for 14 years. Say what you will about America, but at least we don’t get bossed around by a 96-year-old lady who lives in a castle 5,000 miles away.

3) See if maybe you can’t do something to ensure a Game 7. In the 21st century, there have been seven series that went the limit, which means that one out of every three Finals has required a full slate of broadcasts before a champion could be crowned. The average delivery for these seven Game 7s was 7.31 million viewers, which is about 70% higher than the average turnout for the first six games of each overstuffed series. In 2019, NBC scared up 8.91 million viewers for the Blues-Bruins finale via its linear TV feed and various digital platforms, making it the NHL’s biggest draw in 46 years and the league’s fourth most-watched game of all time.

We know you’re probably saying to yourself something along the lines of, “How can I, a purely hypothetical network boss, ensure that these conditions are met?” Truth is, that’s really your problem, and you wouldn’t be where you are today in this increasingly convoluted scenario if not for your elite problem-solving abilities. You’ll figure something out. We all believe in you.

As it happens, none of these things played out during this year’s Stanley Cup Final, an otherwise gripping and entirely nifty showdown between the long-overdue Colorado Avalanche and a Tampa Bay Lightning crew that had been looking to sew up the first pro-league three-peat since the Shaq-Kobe Y2K run of 2000-02. If you missed it, you were in good company; something like 306.9 million people didn’t watch the Avs-Bolts series, which is a shame. A predictable shame, like Augustus Gloop developing Type II diabetes shortly after his near-death experience in a confections foundry, but a shame nonetheless.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, this year’s Cup Final averaged 4.6 million viewers over its six-night run, which is on par with the average turnout for the last 10 title series. In the interest of full disclosure, when we say “last 10,” we mean to say the stretch between 2010 and 2019; the two most recent series are freckled with asterisks and as such, don’t merit entry in the historical record. Last year’s Final was held in July and arrived after a truncated 56-game season, while the interrupted 2020 campaign closed out in September, or a good three months beyond the usual timeframe. The ratings were horrible, but just getting the games in was a major victory for everyone involved.

Of those 4.6 million viewers, 1.77 million, or 38%, were members of the 18-49 demo, which makes for a strong ratio in an increasingly atomized TV environment. (By comparison, the average primetime entertainment series in 2021-22 reached an audience in which the under-50 set accounted for just 17% of the overall deliveries.)

As much as a strong performance in the dollar demo is always welcome, the reception for ABC’s first Stanley Cup Final since 2004 was still something of a letdown. Once the inescapable contradictions of the currency update are dealt with—Nielsen’s 2020 integration of out-of-home deliveries with its national measurement scheme has made for an endless amount of apples-to-hand-grenades comparisons—the ratings tally begins to wither. Instead of merely being down 16% versus NBC’s 2019 tally (5.47 million), the adjusted Avs-Bolts average was down 24% when all the eyeballs in bars, restaurants and gyms were factored out. Based on the standard household ratings, out-of-home deliveries appear to have given ABC’s vanilla TV numbers a boost of some 460,000 impressions per broadcast.

On the other hand, the number of people who’ve watched primetime TV in June is down 26% versus the analogous period in 2019, so there’s that. That said, any comparison with any Cup Final of the 16-season NBC era is by definition a bit suspect, given that the previous NHL rights holder always aired two games on its cable sibling NBCSN. Three years ago, the now-defunct NBCSN reached 23 million fewer homes than NBC, a shortfall that had a proportionately chilling effect on the ratings. Whereas the flagship network’s coverage of the Bruins-Blues series averaged some 6.2 million viewers, the two games that were shunted over to NBCSN drew just 3.2 million fans.

If you’re wondering why NBC would shoot itself in the skate every year by moving two games to basic cable, it’s because the terms of its carriage agreements with pay-TV operators specified that NBCSN be cut in on the action. Luckily for the NHL, the same draconian arrangements don’t color ABC’s portion of the current rights package, which means that this year’s Cup Final was the first to air exclusively on a broadcast network in 18 years—or 17, if you eliminate the lockout season of 2015.

Unfortunately, the cable conundrum hasn’t been banished altogether, and with Turner Sports getting its first crack at hosting a Stanley Cup Final in 2023, the NHL’s reach issue is about to emerge from what amounts to a brief hiatus. Discounting the impact of virtual MVPDs like Sling TV and Hulu, TBS and TNT are available in about 18 million fewer homes than ABC. During the next few odd-numbered years, it’ll be as if NBCSN were back in business, only instead of limiting the damage to a pair of games, each frame of the best-of-seven series will be remanded to cable.

On the whole, the first year of the Disney-Turner Sports era marked a big win for the NHL, which booked $5.2 billion in total revenue. (Valued at three times the old NBC agreement, the new contract certainly contributed to the league’s haul, although the return to a standard 82-game schedule and full arenas did much of the heavy lifting.) And in spreading its games across two major media properties, pro hockey is finally earning the kind of exposure that other leagues have long taken for granted. If nothing else, getting back into the SportsCenter rotation after two decades of skulking around in the Highlights Witness Protection Program has done wonders for the NHL brand.

Whether the media partners have an unequivocal win on their hands is an altogether different kettle of tossed catfish. Over the first three rounds of the playoffs, Disney and Turner Sports averaged 1.12 million viewers, which was flat versus 2019 levels, and in keeping with what NBC served up throughout its final decade of postseason coverage. Still, it may be tough to justify the cost of pairing off with the NHL, as Turner is paying $225 million a year and ESPN/ABC nearly twice that amount. Last year, advertisers forked over some $191.3 million to secure in-game NHL inventory, and doubling the number of networks airing the games doesn’t automatically translate into a 100% lift in revenues.

As it is, 75 of the games in the Disney package were carried by ESPN+ this season, and in time HBO Max is expected to grab a chunk of Turner Sports’ NHL schedule. And if the vicissitudes of digital rate cards and ARPU don’t always make for the most compelling talking points, the disadvantages of sharing the road are admittedly hard to overlook. Turner Sports is paying the same amount NBC coughed up each year, but is getting only three Stanley Cup Finals for its troubles. ABC gets four title tilts, but is paying twice what NBC paid.

For what it’s worth, this is the same NBC that came to the conclusion that it had taken its NHL partnership about as far as it could go before effectively bailing out of the auction with a lowball $100 million-per-year offer. NBC knew that it was time to walk away, and walk away it did. If the Disney/Turner investment is largely predicated on drawing a greater concentration of younger, more affluent sports fans to their respective streaming platforms, then a final reckoning as to the wisdom of their joint NHL partnership could be years in the telling.

A less ambiguous matter is how the NHL will fare in the long haul. That’s easy: They won.

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