NHL regular-season TV numbers are still nowhere near that of the other three major sports, but they are on an upswing, and the shortened season provided the biggest numbers in nearly two decades.
NBC Sports Network averaged 392,000 viewers for NHL coverage in 2013. That was up 18 percent from last season's average (332,000) and the best number for cable coverage of hockey since 1993-94, when ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 474,000 viewers. Even though the shortened season is thought to provide unsustainable numbers, any time you can hit a 19-year-high is something to write home about.
"Despite unique programming challenges, NHL viewership grew this year and set numerous records and milestones across both NBC and NBC Sports Network, including a successful new franchise with Wednesday Night Rivalry," said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports. "Considering there was a shortened season, no Winter Classic and no All-Star programming, these results speak well of the NHL's popularity and the strength of our partnership."
The key to NBCSN's success, and why the numbers might have a shot at surviving? The new hit success of Wednesday Night Rivalry. It gives NBC Sports Network a "must-see" game night akin to NBC's Sunday games. These broadcasts averaged 646,000 viewers over 14 telecasts. That was up 46 percent from the average viewership for Wednesday night games on VERSUS/NBCSN in 2011-12.
Between Wednesdays and Sundays, NBC Sports Network put up some gaudy numbers. Seven of the eight-most watched games in NBCSN/VERSUS/OLN history came this season, including the most-watched ever. That would be the Bruins-Rangers game back in January that hit 956,000 viewers.
Viewer numbers from the opening night of the Stanley Cup Playoffs should be available later Wednesday, but for now, a good season to look back on for the NHL and NBC.