Now that the Tampa Bay Lightning have hoisted Lord Stanley’s ornate beer stein in Edmonton, bringing a close to the strangest NHL season on record while doing their part to salvage a nice hunk of revenue for the league, all that’s left to do is to sift through the numbers. And while the dollar figures and Nielsen data are of particular interest, nothing should take precedence over bubble hockey’s COVID-19 shutout.
Over the course of the nine-week postseason stretch, during which players were isolated from their families and weren’t exactly encumbered by amenities, the NHL administered 33,174 tests for the coronavirus, a blitz that uncovered not a single positive result. While the strict regulations under which the return-to-play initiative was executed made for a trying experience—the NHLPA has already indicated that players aren’t interested in revisiting the lockdown concept for a full-season run in 2020-21—the playoff bubble was an unqualified success.
That Tampa Bay on Monday night celebrated the first U.S. sports championship of the pandemic era was a very real triumph for the exultant Lightning—and a not-entirely-symbolic victory for the league itself. While the lack of fans in the stands prevented the NHL from recouping the entirety of the $1.1 billion in potential losses it faced before the re-start got underway on Aug. 1, not only were hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue clawed back, but the success of the bubble scheme all but ensures that the league won’t have lost any momentum as it begins negotiating its media-rights deals.
None of which is to say that the unorthodox timing of this year’s postseason tournament and the competitive hurdles faced by the league didn’t put the squeeze on the NHL’s TV ratings. Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, the NHL playoffs averaged 845,000 viewers on NBC, its cable sibling NBCSN and their various digital extensions, down 28% versus last year’s average (1.18 million). Under the current postseason format, those deliveries marked a low-water mark for the NHL.
The usual caveats apply. Not only did these playoffs take place nearly three months after they normally get under way, but they also had to contend with the return of every other top-flight sports league, a roster that includes the NBA, Major League Baseball and NFL. The six-game Stanley Cup Final itself presented an object lesson about the reality of the Too-Much-Sports situation; the Lightning-Stars series aired opposite two Monday Night Football telecasts, two consecutive Saturdays of college football action and a pair of NBA Eastern Conference Finals games.
The TV ratings are evidence of the bruising impact football and basketball had on hockey’s title showcase. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the 2020 Stanley Cup Final averaged just 2.04 million linear TV viewers and a 1.2 household rating, with streaming adding another 50,000 or so impressions per broadcast. The Bolts’ second championship is on track to have been the second least-watched Final on record, trailing only the 2007 Anaheim Ducks’ five-game win over the Ottawa Senators, which eked out just 1.74 million viewers on NBC and the little-distributed NBCSN precursor, Versus.
If displacement and a whole lot of high-octane sports competition didn’t exactly help the ratings effort, the Sun Belt markets of the Bolts and Stars were hardly a boon, either. Historically, Stanley Cup ratings have been largely dependent upon a confluence of factors, of which perhaps the most crucial are the participation of at least one Original Six franchise and a six- or seven-game set.
That this year’s Final marked the first time both teams hailed from markets in which hockey is effectively an import—say, if ice doesn’t naturally form outdoors in the area in question—made the games a harder sell back at home. For example, over the course of the first three games, only 8% of all TV homes in Tampa were tuned in to the Cup Final, which in turn was down nearly 50% compared to the Bolts’ last title tilt in 2015. In Dallas, the Stars accounted for around 6% of all tune-in. And these are hardly insignificant markets; per Nielsen, Dallas-Ft. Worth is the nation’s fifth-largest media market, while Tampa-St. Pete ranks No. 12.
As luck would have it, the bubble version of the Stanley Cup Final came on the heels of last season’s record-smashing set between the Bruins and Blues. Game 7 averaged a staggering 8.72 million viewers and a 4.9 rating on NBC, making it the NHL’s most-watched, highest-rated game in at least 25 years. Only three NHL games in history are believed to have put up bigger deliveries than the Blues’ 4-1 victory on June 12, 2019, but since they were played before the modern people-meter era, any comparisons are necessarily of the apples-to-Apple Jacks variety. (As are any comparisons between 2020 and pretty much any other year you can think of.)
The top advertisers in the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final were Honda, Geico, Lexus, New Amsterdam Spirits, Progressive, Discover Card, Bud Light and Subway. Per iSpot.tv estimates, NBC Sports booked some $81.4 million in ad sales revenue over the course of the Final, a reckoning the does not make allowances for make-goods.