In 2004, the National Hockey League came as close as a major American professional sports league ever has to committing suicide.
An acrimonious lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season and a TV contract that moved the NHL off of its home on ESPN2 and onto the then-fledgling NBC Sports Network made it so that most of the American public effectively forgot that hockey existed.
NBC — the actual broadcast network — and its various cable outlets reported the highest ratings since 1994, when they were able to be measured in their present form, through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The ratings were only up one percent from 2018, but like a late goal in overtime, sometimes you only need one more point on the scoreboard to win.
From NBC’s official media release:
“For the 69 games of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBC Sports is averaging a Total Audience Delivery of 1.073 million viewers across NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, USA Network, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app, making it the most-watched playoffs on record through two rounds. Viewership is up 1% compared to 2018 (1.067 million), which held the previous record through two rounds.
“NBC Sports’ cable coverage of the 2019 playoffs across NBCSN, CNBC, USA Network, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app is averaging a TAD of 911,000 viewers, making it the most-watched cable delivery on record through the second round and up 10% compared to last year (825,000). Viewers have livestreamed more than a half-billion minutes through two rounds (526.8 million), up 39% compared to the same time period last season.”
Sure, those numbers are a far cry from, say, the World Series (14.3 million viewers in 2018 despite including two of the biggest media markets), the NBA Finals (17.7 million for a Warriors-Cavs series nobody wanted) and the Super Bowl (98.2 million for a stinker of a Patriots-Rams game), but hockey is the only one of those four sports where the ratings are improving.
That last figure is of particular interest because of what it says about rising ratings in today’s modern media landscape.
After all, cord-cutting is rampant. TV networks are competing for a shrinking pool of viewers as more people, especially young ones, ditch cable entirely and remove themselves from the measurable audience that went into that “up one percent” figure.
Removing the broadcast TV portion and limiting things strictly to cable networks, the audience is up not one percent but 10. That is the kind of data the word “skyrocketing” was intended to describe.
And streaming — by far the fastest-growing platform by which people consume passive media such as television — has brought hockey along for the ride as fans are able to find and access live NHL content online, something that more media companies are embracing as younger generations demand sports that can be watched on the go.
Even more impressive? NBC has done all this despite a conspicuous absence of large media markets.
The New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks all missed the playoffs. The New York Islanders, while representing the nation’s largest media market, do not have nearly the same fan footprint as do their more-famous crosstown rivals.
Sure, there’s hockey-mad Boston, but the rest of the conference finals lineup features San Jose, St. Louis and Carolina. Yet the league is still smashing ratings records.
Which, in turn, gives us a conclusion we can draw from this.
Hockey is so popular today, and the league so resurgent after wandering the sports-media wilderness for years, that even small-market teams are commanding record-high audience numbers.
We live in a changing sports media world. The NFL is rocked by scandals across the American political spectrum from concussions to national anthem protests. Major League Baseball is plagued by games that are too long and too slow-paced to keep younger viewers interested. And the NBA will never resonate in heartland America the way it does elsewhere.
Against that backdrop, hockey is more than ready to step in and reclaim its place as one of the “four major sports.”
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