When the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets advanced to the NHL’s Western Conference Final, many thought that might bode poorly for the ratings. After all, Winnipeg doesn’t have a local TV market that counts for U.S. ratings, and Las Vegas is the 40th-largest U.S. market and also in its first year with a NHL team. Instead, those ratings have been historically good through two games, producing an average total audience delivery of 1.841 million viewers. That marks a 70 per cent rise over last year’s Nashville-Anaheim series, and is also NBC’s best WCF of any kind since 2015 (Chicago-Anaheim) and their best WCF ever (in their history of NHL broadcasts, which dates back to 2006) not featuring Chicago.
It’s also ahead of the Washington Capitals-Tampa Bay Lightning Eastern Conference Final, which averaged around 1.7 million total viewers through the first two games. And that’s all pretty remarkable.
Local markets often matter, and that’s obvious when you see the non-Chicago caveat in the data there. And the overall top 10 local markets for the Stanley Cup playoffs so far support that; #2 Buffalo is the only market on the list without a nearby team that was in the playoffs. #1 Pittsburgh, #3 Nashville and #5 Boston had their team make it to the second round, #4 Las Vegas, #6 Tampa and #7 Washington are still going, #10 Minneapolis – St. Paul saw their team exit in the first round, and #8 Providence and #9 Fort Myers have strong connections to the nearby Bruins and Lightning respectively. So it’s impressive that a series featuring a Canadian team produced such big ratings.
Of course, there are some caveats to consider. A big part of the WCF’s strength so far comes from Game 1 appearing on NBC Saturday rather than NBCSN, pulling in a total audience of 2.374 million viewers (with streaming factored in). NBC is a broadcast network available to all estimated 119.6 million TV homes in the U.S., while NBCSN is in 83.7 million as of Nielsen’s May estimates, so there are almost 36 million more people who had access to that game than to games on NBCSN. (Game 2 on NBCSN drew a respectable 1.290 million viewers, not bad, but not near those heights.) And last year, the WCF saw its first two games air on NBCSN, giving context to that 70 percent jump, while it was the Eastern series that had an early NBC game. This time around, the ECF had its first two games on NBCSN, and that’s reflected in the ratings.
It’s also worth considering that this is the first year where NBC is using Total Audience Delivery, and folding streaming numbers into linear TV. Other networks are doing that too, including ESPN, so that’s not out of the standard, but it’s worth keeping in mind that a significant amount of this audience is on streaming. NBC has set records there this year, posting “2.5 million uniques and 411 million live minutes, up 75% and 23%, respectively, compared to the same point of the playoffs in 2017” and an average minute audience of 34,100 viewers, up 42 percent over last year’s 24,100. That’s still pretty small relative to the TV audience, and streaming of course makes up a more significant part of the audience in 2018 then it did in previous years, so it’s not that these numbers are incomparable to previous years, but the TAD boost is worth noting.
All in all, though, this Golden Knights-Jets series seems to be significantly overperforming the low expectations many had, and continuing the strong trend of NHL playoff ratings so far this year. And it’s interesting that last year also saw some solid performances for NBC despite the presence of Canadian teams (including the Ottawa Senators making the ECF). Local markets are certainly important to sports, and they’ve often been helpful for the NHL, especially with established teams.
However, that trend is changing this year, as this is the first time since 2006 that the Conference Final round does not feature an Original Six team or the Pittsburgh Penguins (another traditionally strong draw), but the ratings overall are still up, with the combined conference final numbers producing a TAD of 1.776 million viewers through four games, the best in three years and a three percent rise over last year. We’ll see if that continues as we get into more NBCSN-only games for the Golden Knights and Jets, starting with Game 3 tonight (9 p.m. Eastern), but they’ve certainly brought in the numbers so far.