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The NHL on TV in 2013-14: Opportunity in America, the end of an era in Canada

I was at Yankee Stadium in January, looking out at nearly 50,000 people about to watch yet another NHL triumph at an outdoor venue. And my thought at the time was, “well, this is just another good thing the NHL did.” They sold out Dodger Stadium, they sold out Michigan Stadium… now they’re gonna do two nights at Yankee Stadium, and they’ll do good TV ratings for them, too. Big deal, what’s next?

That’s sort of how I view the NHL season on television this year. We’re a year and a half from a lockout that knocked out half of the 2012-13 season, but the season we did have performed marvelously on television, and the playoffs even better. The numbers from 2013-14 pretty much matched them, and just fell short in the playoffs and Stanley Cup Final. All told, the National Hockey League is a fairly stable, if still niche, league on television.

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During the regular season, NBC and NBCSN combined to average 532,000 viewers. Looking at the 2013-14 season as a (highly-rated) anomaly, you look at it against past full seasons of the NHL on NBC and NBCSN. In that regard, it was the most-watched full season ever for the NBC networks.

NBCSN drew an average of 351,000 viewers, up from 2011-12 (332,000) and breaking the record of 2010-11 on VERSUS, which averaged 348,000 viewers. However, VERSUS only broadcast 52 games in that season. NBCSN aired 88. NBC also set its most-watched regular season, and was up 22% from last year’s lockout-shortened season, though aided by a few more outdoor games.

Among NBC’s years broadcasting the sport since the lockout (2006-present), 2014 saw the second-most watched postseason on record. They averaged 1.445 million viewers, down just a tick from 2013’s 1.471 million. On record (the records go back to 1994), only 2013, 1996 and 1997 were higher rated in broadcast and cable combined.

In a cable only sense, NBCSN and CNBC averaged 1.098 million viewers. That’s the most-watched Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1997, when ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 1.211 million.

Hockey fans often bemoan ESPN’s lack of interest, but that’s more than a handful of ESPN-exclusive postseasons that NBCSN and CNBC beat. Who needs ‘em?

So America is mostly doing fine, though the NHL is still at a certain “level” and there’s a ceiling that just hasn’t been broken yet. A promising sign might be taken from the Kings-Blackhawks Game 7, which was only out-drawn by the three Stanley Cup Final games on NBC for the most-watched hockey game of the season, and that includes the Olympics. The NHL is capable of building buzz, but it’s clear it needs games like that to deliver to see the numbers rise.

It is Canada where the uncertainty rises. CBC averaged 3.3 million viewers for the all-American Stanley Cup Final, about the same levels as last year’s. There wouldn’t be much to say about the state of Canadian hockey broadcasting if there weren’t a complete paradigm shift about to happen.

Yes, we’ve written a lot about the changeover from TSN and CBC to Rogers’ consortium (which will include a sort of neutered CBC in which hockey programming is controlled by Rogers and merely airs on the network) that is starting to create a sort of two-headed monster from both companies’ sets of talent.

The questions will turn to what ratings even mean for Canadian hockey broadcasts in the future. Rogers will air national games on potentially a half-dozen networks at the same time at 7 p.m. ET on a Saturday, and that’s just in English. Will they combine all of their networks’ ratings into one round Hockey Night in Canada number? Will they separate it? How will the creation of a Sunday night package dilute or enhance the HNIC brand? Will Sportsnet’s Wednesday night package match TSN’s? There’a lot of questions, and we probably won’t have definitive answers to them any time soon.

Now there’s something, isn’t it? The NHL’s television scenario in America is fine and dandy, with everything remaining pretty stable and everyone remaining happy from year-to-year. In Canada, however? Chaos may yet reign, and everything’s about to change. Canada and changes to hockey broadcasts do not mesh well, which is why Bob Cole is still working. Whether or not they accept this complete overhaul is a question for the long-term future.

Steve Lepore

About Steve Lepore

Steve Lepore is a writer for Bloguin and a correspondent for SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.

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