While the NHL was off last Saturday night, the events of that evening had to make Gary Bettman and a few NBC executives shudder. Golden State beat back Oklahoma City to force a Game 7 that wouldn't just go against their Stanley Cup Final Game 1 broadcast on NBC, it took out most of a captive Bay Area audience that would now watch the Warriors instead of the Sharks. And the early numbers are not promising: hockey scored a 2.8 rating on NBC (not terrible by any stretch, only series with the Blackhawks did better), but Thunder/Warriors did 11.2 on TNT, which is coincidentally the highest ever NBA rating on cable.
Hockey fans, as defensive as any group of fans this side of soccer, are naturally scrambling to find explanations for this. From talking about NBC's total ownership of hockey coverage in the US to demographics and everywhere in-between, hockey fans are trying to ascertain why such a massive disparity exists between two sports that were once about dead equal in popularity. Something this stark only elucidates a gap that has been well known, but hasn't really been able to be seen in this clear detail.
Part of this difference has to do with the way the sport is marketed in this country. The focus is put on rivalries, which isn't a bad decision because the NHL is filled with great rivalries. But often times those rivalries are focused on to a point of over-exposure, even if those games and series are worth the wait. Adam Silver's NBA on the other hand doesn't need teams or markets in the Finals, because his league only needs certain players in the big show to succeed. A decade ago, Golden State and Cleveland were both basketball wastelands, but thanks to clever marketing and jaw-dropping performances, not anymore. There would be panic in some circles if Memphis and Toronto played in the NBA Finals, but once a new force builds in the league, they quickly find a way to market it to the public and make sure they find something to latch onto in case they get big.
Gary Bettman's NHL has hitched their wagon so tightly to rivalries and certain teams (also by extension, certain markets), that if those markets are gone, so too go the ratings. While the early and mid-2000's were a wasteland of small-market American teams against smaller market Canadian teams, or series like New Jersey-Anaheim, the ratings on ABC were better on average than they are now on NBC. During the dead-puck era, and when the Finals were almost exclusively blowouts, FOX did better, though not by much. The best NBC average for the Final is 3.3 when the Blackhawks played the Bruins in 2013. ABC's worst since they picked up the Finals in 2003 was a 6.2 in 2007. The NHL has always been playing catch-up, and will continue to do so.
Hockey's relative struggles in the US can also be attributed to demographics, and of course the sheer ease with which anyone can play basketball that's not even close to present in hockey, but that doesn't translate entirely to TV ratings. While this Stanley Cup Final is full of stars on both sides, the series is still pushed as Sharks-Penguins, not Thornton-Crosby, etc. Golden State-Cleveland is still that, but it's more Steph-Lebron, and there you have a winner. The NHL's small cadre of superstars all exist in major markets, and beyond that it seems like the stars on the other teams across the league are left in the cold. If the Raptors made the NBA Finals, NBA executives wouldn't be hugely pleased, but they'd still find a way to market DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to make up for it.
But the NHL's biggest problem is keeping fans of teams who aren't in the Final (and the rest of the playoffs) to stick with it after their team is eliminated. Thunder fans, though by in large probably angry with basketball, will still watch Cavs-Dubs, as will fans in New York, LA, Boston, etc. NHL teams have such tribal fanbases that it has become accepted that some fans like their team well beyond like the league and the sport of hockey. Sharks-Penguins is a hockey purist's dream Stanley Cup Final, with storylines everywhere, fast paced up and down play and engrossing action from start to finish, but yet it seems that many in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, New York, etc. are missing out. How does the NHL fix this problem? It's a riddle they've yet to come close to solving. Once they crack it, maybe then the NHL's ratings will finally show some upward growth.
While there is concern in the corridors of the NHL's New York offices about the ratings dilemma, they're certainly not complaining about the money they're making. Safe to say, the NHL has never made a financial windfall like they're currently stuffing into their coffers, indifferent TV ratings aside. Hockey as a sport has always been outstripped in popularity by baseball, basketball and football, and some of that stems from the days when it was basically impossible to watch the Stanley Cup Final on TV. But the NHL has yet to capitalize on the momentum it has seen from big market teams becoming dominant of late and using that to market not only the markets, but the stars everywhere else too. It's only upward momentum of late was the John Scott controversy they created themselves and tried desperately to kaibosh not knowing what they had.
Maybe NBC and NBCSN's ratings will go up as Sharks-Penguins continue because of the teams involved and the style of play, but everyone has a feeling as to what the ceiling is going to be. No amount of griping from hockey's die-hards is going to change what already was inevitable.
In other words, if you want casual fans to watch, pray for overtime and a long series, which has been the formula for the Stanley Cup Final forever.