As even the most popular sports are reliant on long-standing rivalries and some sort of competitive continuity, one can imagine how the National Hockey League struggles in its ever lingering bid for mass appeal. That’s the first idea to pop up when noting that the last five Stanley Cup Finals have featured 10 different teams.
Apparently it’s too easy to forget that the NHL simply can’t put together a good national television deal, no matter how much the games merit more attention. During this spring of thrilling Stanley Cup playoffs, what’s bad for the NHL is even worse for sports fans.
Anyone in America can watch every game in the NBA playoffs. But try finding the NHL, even if some playoff series features the league’s two best players battling fiercely to the bitter end in Game 7.
Earlier this month, the Pittsburgh Penguins, featuring Sidney Crosby, played in the NHL’s Eastern Conference semifinals against the Washington Capitals, starring Alex Ovechkin. Crosby and Ovechkin are the LeBron and Kobe of the NHL, easily the game’s two biggest stars. Their teams played a heart-stopping seven-game series in which three of the first six games went to overtime.
Six of the seven games in that series, however, aired on a relatively obscure cable network called Versus, formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network. Versus shows you a fine hockey game, but only if you can find it. Unlike stalwarts such as ESPN and the Fox Sports regional networks, Versus doesn’t show up on the Time-Warner basic tier.
If you don’t pony up for the sports tier, your only other chance of finding the NHL is NBC, which isn’t the most reliable carrier for hockey. During the weekend of May 9-10, NBC didn’t even bother showing the NHL, electing instead to show golf.
Sadly for the NHL, that proved to be a sound decision on NBC’s part. The final round of the Players Championship on the afternoon of May 10 drew a 3.6 rating (the percentage of television households tuned to a program) and a 10 share (the percentage of televisions in use tuned to a program).
When NBC returned to the NHL for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks May 17, it drew a 2.0 rating and a 5 share, which constituted the NHL’s best showing on network television in five years.
That little nugget says volumes about the plight of the NHL as it fights to regain its audience after a lockout cancelled the 2004-05 season.
Hockey was never a huge national television draw. The lockout rendered the NHL virtually useless for national television carriers. As a result, the league is fighting to expand its audience, even when the competition is as good as ever, the memory of the lockout has faded and the league’s popularity among certain regions and demographics is truly impressive.
NBC doesn’t even pay the NHL rights fees. Instead, the league and the network operate on a “revenue sharing” agreement. As a result, the network has little incentive to squeeze the NHL into its weekend schedule.
During the regular season, NBC shows eight or nine NHL games. About 1 percent of the TV households watch, which means the NHL draws about as well as arena football.
NHL fans wish they could turn back the clock to the days when their league appeared regularly on ESPN. But ESPN dropped the NHL after the lockout.
Versus, which now pays the NHL about $70 million per year for TV rights, reaches about three-quarters of ESPN’s 98 million TV households. That doesn’t mean Versus is three-quarters as well-known as ESPN.
Sports fans who flip over to ESPN just to see what’s up might have stumbled into the NHL. But no one flips to Versus just to see what’s happening.
USA Today recently reported that NHL playoff games on Versus were showing in about 374,000 households. Five years ago, the NHL playoffs averaged about 550,000 households on ESPN. Pro bowling averages about 672,000 households on ESPN. The Little League World Series averages 582,000 households on ESPN.
All that said, some pretty good signs are popping up for the league. Game 7 between Pittsburgh and Washington, broadcast on Versus May 13, drew the highest national rating among men aged 18-34 in the 7-9:30 p.m. time slot, according to Sports Media Watch.
The national numbers aren’t great, but they’re considerably improving. Through six NHL playoff broadcasts this year, NBC averages 1.6 million viewers, a 15 percent increase from last year.
From a local perspective, the NHL is booming. In Boston, NESN marked five of its seven best ratings ever for Bruins games during the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Bruins and the Carolina Hurricanes. In Chicago, Comcast has continuously set records for Blackhawks telecasts during the playoffs.
Fox Sports Net in Detroit has twice set its all-time ratings record for any program while airing the Red Wings during this year’s playoffs. And Pittsburgh viewers are bonkers about the Penguins on Fox Sports Net. The Penguins hit the three highest ratings ever for a hockey game on any Fox regional this month, going all the way up to a 25 rating for Game 7 between the Pens and Caps.
To the extent that it’s possible for anything to gain mass popularity while staying under the radar, it’s happening in hockey. A good part of that is because hockey remains a regional sport fixed to winter.
South of the Great Lakes, the culture of hockey playing simply doesn’t exist in this country, and no amount of minor league franchises in Texas will ever change that. Among the worst 11 NHL franchises in terms of average attendance are Carolina, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Florida, Columbus, Nashville, Phoenix and Atlanta.
The NHL can’t make itself a national attraction in the U.S. simply by locating franchises in every growth center. NBC knows that, which is why it hasn’t said if it will re-up with the NHL, and the other networks know it, which is why they’re not fighting for the broadcast rights.
But if you just want to watch hockey, the conference finals are a treat, with Pittsburgh playing Carolina in the East and Detroit playing Chicago in the West. If all breaks right, the league could even realize something of a dream: a Stanley Cup Finals rematch between Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Most of the games from here on out will be on Versus. Good luck finding them, even if it’s worth the trouble.
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