There are several key things to consider with ratings stories, including who’s providing the ratings numbers, what those numbers are being compared to, and what other context is out there. The Athletic’s “NHL TV ratings up as push to engage fans outside rinks breaks from tradition,” a story by Sean Shapiro that was published Friday, is missing a fair bit of important context. The piece is about the NHL “television boom,” but it cites a grand total of two national US TV games, one Canadian national game, NHL.tv numbers (not specified, but “doubled”), and season ratings so far on one RSN (Fox Sports Midwest, soon to be Bally Sports Midwest), with all of those numbers provided by league sources.
But while “ratings up” is technically true, there’s a lot more context to be found in a fuller look at the publicly-available ratings, and that can be done without relying on any league sources. And that’s especially important when it comes to the national games on NBC and NBCSN, and their ratings this year are quite important with this being the last year of the NHL on NBC TV contract. To start with, here are some key parts of Shapiro’s piece on the national TV picture, which is what we’re primarily concerned with here.
“But according to league officials who spoke to The Athletic on Thursday, the league is making the most of other platforms and digital connections with fans early in this truncated 2020-21 season.
For starters, on a national level TV viewership is up for the league, as NBC has seen an uptick in viewership on both NBC and NBC Sports.
The opening night game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers was the most-watched game in NBCSN network history, drawing 972,000 viewers. The Penguins game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 17 on NBC drew 1.727 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-outdoor regular-season game in three years.
That’s the entirety of the U.S. national TV data presented in this piece, where Shapiro later goes on to describe a “television boom.” Here is that specific part of the piece:
“The pandemic and timing certainly contribute to the television boom. Fans aren’t able to see games in person, there is an audience tuning in that would typically be attending games, while people, in general, are more confined to their homes — streaming is at an all-time high in all walks of life, not just sports.”
But while there are elevated ratings compared to some past seasons, the picture gets a lot more nuanced when you consider all of the national TV ratings so far, and that brings up huge questions about if there is actually a “television boom.” And those ratings are publicly available through Mitch Metcalf’s excellent “Skedball” weekly roundups at Showbuzz Daily (and, for this week, his daily ratings posts). Here is a chart with that information, with NBC-only data in gold and NBCSN/both networks data in light blue. Click to embiggen.
As illustrated there, the idea of NHL ratings being up so far this season is not wrong, especially when compared to the entire 2019-20 regular season before its suspension (and not the later post-resumption qualifying round, which drew better ratings, but ratings still below the start here). And the ratings for those two specific games are indeed quite good. But it’s far better to have a “ratings up” story with the 13 national data points available so far than to have one that only cites two of those specific points. And a key thing to keep in mind here is that this is only about the first few weeks of this season; early weeks of any season, and late weeks, tend to do much better than the doldrums in the middle. And along that front, one particular filter here (NBCSN without opening night) is actually below the 2019-20 regular season NBCSN average, pulling in 282,500 viewers versus 309,000 (See the * at the end of this piece for a discussion about how we got 309,000.)
Of course, NBC and NBCSN deserve credit for those strong opening games this year. And as Shapiro’s piece does note, those opening games did better than comparable opening games in previous years. And the season-end numbers from previous years do include opening games, so the NBCSN without opening night filter isn’t quite fair the other way. But what that filter does suggest is that the “TV boom” so far, at least when it comes to NBCSN, was primarily about the first night. And as the season goes along, those stellar first-night numbers have less of an impact on the average. And with that factored in, it’s far from clear that the total season numbers are going to surpass 2019-20.
Let’s further explore that with some math. The full NHL on NBC schedule for 2021 has 101 listed games, albeit with many of the late-season ones TBD. 16 are on NBC, with the remaining 85 on NBCSN. Through today, they’ve played two of the NBC games and 11 of the NBCSN games, leaving 14 and 74 respectively. If the 74 remaining NBCSN games produce the average of the non-first night games (282,500), that’s 20,905,000 total viewers, which added to the 4,408,000 who have watched the 11 NBCSN games so far (including the first night) makes 25,313,000. Divide that by 85 and we get 297,800, a NBCSN average audience that would be below the 2019-20 number.
And keep in mind that the pre-postponement 2019-20 season wasn’t great for NHL on NBCSN numbers; it was above 2017-18, but below 2018-19. And part of that was that the last part of the season and its playoff-race moments didn’t happen. This season could have that with a normal run-up to the playoffs, and that could make the average audience projection here come in on the low side. But if the 2021 season actually did wind up coming in below 2019-20, that would be underwhelming indeed.
Those are all projections at this point, of course. We don’t know exactly how the NBCSN viewership is going to shake out over the rest of this year; it could definitely pick up as the playoffs get closer. And even if the NBCSN viewership winds up down, there may be some positives for the overall “NHL on NBC and NBCSN” viewership story, as having a record 16 games on broadcast NBC tends to help there. But the point is that there really isn’t a “TV boom” for the NHL at this point in the 2021 season, at least when it comes to NBC and (especially) NBCSN numbers beyond the first games there.
In fact, there’s a chance that the overall TV numbers this year are going to be down, particularly on NBCSN (presuming that the post-opening night numbers are more reflective of the long-term trend than the numbers that include opening night). But the takeaway here is not “NHL TV numbers failing”; it’s that it feels too soon to write “NHL TV ratings up” and “television boom” based on a tiny selection of data, especially with only the most favorable-to-the-league numbers from the very first games being the only ones included in the piece.
On some level, this is inside baseball (inside hockey?), and the specific ratings numbers aren’t all that important to the general public, especially this early in the season. But there are some extra stakes at play this year in particular. This is the final year of the NHL’s TV contract with NBC, and there have been lots of discussions about what that means, especially with NBC planning to close down NBCSN by the end of 2021 and shift sports content to USA and Peacock. That might mean further interest in a split national package, with ESPN and even Fox receiving discussion there. So talk of a “television boom” for national NHL games would seem to be very helpful for the league. However, the non-opening game data so far doesn’t really support that boom description.
*How did we get to the audience number for NBCSN alone in 2019-20? NBC did not put out their usual release breaking out the NBCSN numbers, and they only referenced their regular-season numbers by comparison in a release from the “qualification round,” citing 398,000 regular-season viewers for coverage on NBC and NBCSN combined. But we can break that down further; that release mentions that NHL regular-season viewership on NBC for 2019-20 averaged 1,074,000 viewers without the Winter Classic, and we know that the Winter Classic averaged 1.9 million viewers (an all-time low). And this 2019-20 NHL on NBC and NBCSN schedule from August 2019 includes 95 regular-season games from the start of the season through March 11 (the last game played), plus the skills competition and the All-Star game (which we’re not concerned with here). 10 of those were on NBC (including the Winter Classic), with the other 85 on NBCSN.
So, the audience for 2019-20 regular-season NBC games is roughly 9*1,074,000 (non-Winter Classic, total of 9.67 million)+1,900,000 (Winter Classic), so 11,566,000. And that, plus the 85 NBCSN games, led to an overall average of 398,000. Some algebra means that 11,566,000+85x (where x is the NBCSN average audience) = 398,000*95 = 37,810,000 (total viewership for all NBC and NBCSN games based on that average). 37,810,000 – 11,566,000 = 26,244,000 (total NBCSN viewership) = 85x, so x = 308,753, which we’ll round to 309,000 given that this isn’t a precise calculation. This is not necessarily perfect, as NBCSN sometimes subs in added games that weren’t on the original schedule (which would increase the denominator here and reduce the per-game viewership), but it feels like a good ballpark of what last year’s NBCSN numbers were, and it puts them below 2018-19 (313,000) but above 2017-18 (302,000), so it seems plausible.