NBC Sports’ 16-year stewardship of the Stanley Cup Final is about to come to an end, with the first two games of the NHL’s championship series to be televised on the soon-to-be-shuttered cable channel NBCSN. This rare double-lame-duck scenario effectively suspends all the established rules of TV’s ratings game, inasmuch as the deliveries for the Canadiens-Lightning showdown are almost wholly devoid of meaning.
Naturally, we’re not going to keep the Nielsen data for Monday night’s opener to ourselves, but unless you’re the CMO of Lexus or T-Mobile or Subway or one of the other brands that bought airtime in Tampa’s 5-1 victory, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. Because while the 1.57 million viewers who tuned into NBCSN’s coverage of Game 1 is a relatively paltry turnout for a Final telecast (another 100,000 fans streamed the game on Peacock), this is not something over which anyone at the NHL or NBC Sports will lose any sleep.
Before we get into the whys and wherefores of this heavily asterisked occasion, nitpickers and trivia enthusiasts of all stripes may be interested in how Monday’s TV audience stacks up compared to the historical record. Setting aside any spurious comps with last year’s analogous telecast—Game 2 of the September 2020 Stars-Lightning series, which happened to air directly opposite ABC/ESPN’s season-high (15.7 million viewers) Monday Night Football showcase, averaged 1.14 million viewers on NBCSN—the Montreal-Tampa opener was down 54% versus the comparable telecast of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
Airing a clash on a soon-to-be-discontinued basic-cable channel between one team representing a market wholly unmeasured by Nielsen and the other from a place where ice doesn’t form naturally with a result of de minimis viewership isn’t exactly a jaw-dropping development, and NBC’s guarantees to its advertisers were adjusted accordingly. (NBCSN reaches some 79.9 million subscribers, or about 18 million fewer homes than its broadcast sibling.)
Also not helping matters: The Canadiens and Lightning went head-to-head with Game 5 of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals on ESPN, which averaged 5.74 million viewers.
Again, none of this is a matter of grave importance for anyone, really, and certainly NBC’s not sweating it. This, after all, is its last hurrah, as ESPN and Turner Sports will share the rights to the NHL broadcast package when the puck drops on the 2021-22 season. The conclusion of NBC’s $2 billion hockey deal frees the Comcast-owned net from ever again having to concern itself with how the asset is priced or performs, and while the network is in no way approaching this last best-of-seven series as a mere formality, the quotidian pressures of scaring up a big number no longer apply.
Meanwhile, as much as the NHL likely would prefer to have more eyes on its season-capping series, the league is too busy counting money to worry much about this year’s Cup draw. The NHL’s two new partners are paying north of $4.3 billion over the life of the joint contract, which runs through the 2027-28 campaign. The financial security afforded by this not-at-all insignificant price step-up and the changing of the guard on the network side means the NHL may simply shrug off the ratings, just this once. Next year is for keeps.
Neither the NHL nor NBC could have picked a better time to adopt a sort of Gallic indifference, as comparisons to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final were going to be unfortunate no matter what. Not only did that Bruins-Blues series feature an Original Six squad from a top 10 media market, but it also went the distance. Game 7 averaged 8.72 million viewers on NBC, making it the most-watched NHL game of the modern Nielsen era. Worth noting: Unlike this year’s deliveries, which are plumped up by the inclusion of Nielsen’s out-of-home data, the audience for the 2019 Cup Final was in no way enhanced by any views that may have been garnered by way of a bar/restaurant/gym/game farm/petting zoo/Build-a-Bear® workshop.
Then again, compared to the seismic shift of 1987, when Nielsen switched from paper diaries to an electronic metering system, the OOH lift is a non-issue. National TV ratings were once derived entirely from whatever people claimed to have watched over the course of the week, rather than a passive metering of their consumption. In other words, while the records state that the all-time most-watched NHL game in U.S. history was Game 7 of the 1971 Stanley Cup Final (12.4 million), that’s only because a sufficiently outsized number of people in the sample scribbled their claim to have viewed the CBS broadcast under the “Tuesday, May 18” heading in their Nielsen diaries.
As much as this sanctioned ratings inflation makes any comparison between now and the pre-OOH era somewhat problematic, both NBC and the NHL have the luxury of being able to ignore the distinction entirely—at least in this very particular instance. The ratings agita kicks in again next year, as ABC takes the puck with its first Stanley Cup Final since 2004.