The U.S. numbers are in for the Stanley Cup Final, and they’re some of the lowest in a long while. However, there’s a lot of context that makes that outcome far from surprising.
The Vegas Golden Knights wrapped up their series win with a 9-3 win over the Florida Panthers in Game 5 Tuesday, and that game only averaged a 1.4 rating and 2.72 million U.S. viewers across TNT (2.47 million and TruTV (253,000). (TBS had simulcast previous games in the series, but couldn’t do this one due to MLB commitments.) That made for a low-rated series overall: it averaged a 1.3 rating and 2.6 million viewers, down 43 percent on both fronts from last year’s 2.3 rating and 4.6 million viewers. And part of that was about it being the first Stanley Cup Final to fully air on cable since 1994. Sports Media Watch’s Jon Lewis has more on that:
Airing exclusively on cable for the first time since 1994, the Stanley Cup Final topped only the COVID-affected years of 2020 and 2021 as the least-watched since 2007.
Playoff viewership, which was +2% to a 5-year high entering the SCF, finished -10%. pic.twitter.com/YUyCWovsf5
— Sports Media Watch (@paulsen_smw) June 14, 2023
The Cup Final numbers have already led to some “disaster for the NHL” takes. But there’s a whole lot of context to consider there. The first thing to keep in mind is that ratings numbers tend to improve as a series goes on, so a shorter series is generally likely to have lower numbers overall. (This year’s only went five games, compared to last year’s six.) And this year’s clinching game wasn’t close late, with the Golden Knights leading 6-1 after two periods. So the data compared to previous Game Fives and previous clinching games is notable.
The numbers there still don’t look great for the NHL, but that brings up the next important piece of context. As mentioned above, this series was the first Stanley Cup Final televised entirely on cable since 1994 (Vancouver Canucks-New York Rangers on ESPN). There have often been cable games interspersed with broadcast games over the years (on ESPN and on Versus/NBCSN, depending on who had rights). And, as expected, the cable games tend to produce lower ratings given the lessened number of homes those networks are in.
So this being the first fully-on-cable series since 1994 was expected to produce some level of ratings decline. And it did beat several series which had broadcast components, including the 2020 and 2021 series (which took place at unusual times thanks to COVID-19 impacts) and the 2007 series (which also only went five games and featured the Ottawa Senators, who didn’t produce much in the way of U.S. ratings), and it did at times beat other series’ cable games.
Also, as noted above, the NHL and its broadcast partners have long accepted the cable tradeoff. NBC regularly put some Cup Final games on NBCSN despite the lessened audience, as that helped boost that network in terms of carriage and per-subscriber fees. (And everyone has made that more money for less reach tradeoff at points, including the NFL with ESPN and now with Amazon.)
And the new deals with ESPN parent Disney and TNT parent Warner Bros. Discovery have seemed good for the NHL overall. And WBD was only making that deal if they got every other Final (with this year’s marking history for them as the first major pro sports championship handed out on one of their networks). So accepting somewhat of a limited reach for the Final every other year in exchange for the overall broadcast deals they were able to get seems like an okay tradeoff for the NHL. (And it’s worth noting as well, as Lewis did above, that the playoffs overall were at a five-year high heading into the Final, so the overall ratings picture for the NHL is not as glum as the Final ratings alone might suggest.)
With all that said, though, there can still be some concerns for the NHL. This was the lowest U.S. viewership for a Game 5 of a Final for them since 2.41 million for Canucks-Rangers in 1994 (and that wasn’t a clinching game, and it featured a Canadian team, and that number didn’t include the New York market, where ESPN was blacked out in favor of the local broadcast on MSG). And this was the first game of the Final down from 2020, and the second down from 2021.
Of course, none of that’s necessarily a crisis for the league. And that’s especially true with their national broadcast contracts running through 2027-28. There’s a long while for them to see how the numbers look before they have to negotiate another deal. And these particular numbers do come with all the aforementioned context. But it will be interesting to see how things go next year when the Final returns to ABC, and the year after that when it’s on TNT again.
[Sports Media Watch; photo from Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA Today Sports]