There are some Stanley Cup Finals that are no-brainers when people are trying to predict the ratings and branding success for the National Hockey League. Those are your Pittsburgh-Detroit rematches, or Philadelphia and Chicago in 2010. Somewhat unfortunately, the last slam dunk the NHL had before 2008 was Philadelphia-Detroit in 1997, which only lasted four games.
You also can think about series that will solid, if not spectacular. Last year's Boston-Vancouver series, for example. Everyone knew that it would be a slow build, because there was only one American market involved, but that American market could carry it until the casual viewer took interest. They did, with Game 7 of last year's Stanley Cup Final draw 8.54 million viewers, the best for a hockey game in the United States since 1973.
Some might point to Los Angeles, home of the Kings, with the number two television market on earth as a potential ratings driver, and a bandwagon reputation with both local basketball teams and a thriving celebrity and fan culture. Surely that awesome Twitter account can drive a few stragglers onto the bandwagon. Then again, the Kings still remain very under the radar. I've been asked a lot about what I think of how things in Los Angeles are going on radio shows and podcasts, and I always respond by saying "there's still a lot of work to be done." The 2.9 rating in LA for Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals was good, but we need to see more than 3 percent of the second biggest market in the nation for this town to become a hockey ratings driver.
Then you have New Jersey. They're in the shadow of a big market in New York, and have trouble selling out home games during November and December. Their TV ratings, while relatively okay in terms of viewers, are low when it comes to actual numbers. Also, there's no way to accurately measure their following because they played the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, and those two teams share a television market. Surely those 6.2's and 6.4's won't be there for just the Devils at the beginning of the series. Yet, the buzz around my neck of the woods says the Devils have lured New Jersey fans into this pretty well, with raucous crowds and record ratings on NBC Sports Network.
Right now, I'm personally finding it a little hard to judge what this series can bring. But there is a bit of a precedent to look at when it comes to a series like this. A hockey fan might get both dismayed or encouraged when looking at the ratings for when the Devils took on the Kings' Southern California rivals, the artists formerly known as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003. The Devils won a total homer series in seven games to capture their third Stanley Cup. Could that be a guide to where the ratings needle will swing?
Devils-Ducks averaged a 2.9 rating for five games on ABC, and a 2.4 rating overall. There was minimal interest throughout, even with Disney still owning both the Ducks and ESPN, and therefore trying to pump all of their promotional lifeblood into the series. They even used clips from The Mighty Ducks movies in their opening teases of the games. It was to no avail, largely, as the series averaged the fourth lowest ratings for the finals in the NHL's network television era, as only the three successive Stanley Cup Finals -- 2004, 2006 and 2007 -- were any lower.
There was one bright spot from the series, however. Game 7 drew 7.17 million viewers, ranking fourth all time among Game 7's, and a rating of 5.7. Just as a means of comparison, Game 7 between Boston and Vancouver last June drew a 5.7 rating, but with more television households in 2011 than 2003, drew 8.54 million viewers. Other than that game, only Montreal-Chicago from 1971 and Pittsburgh-Detroit from 2009 have drawn more viewers for a deciding seventh game.
It seems reasonable to expect that Los Angeles will post some of its best ratings ever for hockey. It is also reasonable to expect that the New York market -- with New Jersey representing -- will also post some solid numbers, though who knows if they can even touch the ratings for Rangers-Devils early on in the series? Are they enough to make up for the massive interest in Boston from 2011 (Game 7 drew a 43.4/64 in Boston, meaning nearly two of three people in the city with a TV on were watching it) as well as draw the same casual viewers that not only Boston-Vancouver, but Pittsburgh-Detroit and Philadelphia-Chicago drew?
Here are my game-by-game ratings predictions, based on history and local markets. One thing these two clubs have in favor, I'll say, is that both are very entertaining and capable of putting together a potentially long series.
Wednesday, May 30, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
Recent Game 1 Numbers
2011: 4.53 million
2010: 4.34 million
2009: 4.51 million
Competition: CBS's new summer throwaway reality show, Dogs in the City, and FOX's mainstay So You Think You Can Dance. Neither attract similar audiences to playoff hockey, and I'm sort of thankful for that. The NBA Draft Lottery, Game 2 of the Boston-Miami series and a US-Brazil friendly on the ESPN family of networks pose more of a challenge.
Prediction: I still honestly think this series is a slow build. Game 1 of last year's series seems almost like a freak accident compared to the rest of the series, beating out both Philly-Chicago and Pittsburgh-Detroit. I think we see numbers head back down to earth. 4.15 million viewers for Game 1.
Saturday, June 2, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
Recent Game 2 Numbers
2011: 3.37 million
2010: 5.91 million
2009: 5.33 million
Competition: FOX has its beatable Saturday night baseball package, which has drawn terrible ratings in its first couple of weeks. Yankees-Tigers is the most highly distributed game, which might distract some New York viewers. Game 4 between the Spurs and Thunder is on TNT, and will likely outdraw baseball and hockey.
Prediction: First, an explanation. Game 2 in 2010 aired on a Monday, while Game 2 in 2009 aired on a Sunday. Both are far better TV nights than the Saturday night NBC is stuck with in both 2011 and 2012. That said, I think numbers are a little better than last year, solely based on hope for more engaged local markets. 3.8 million viewers for Game 2.
Monday, June 4, 8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network
Recent Game 3 Numbers
2011: 2.76 million
2010: 3.60 million
2009: 2.95 million
Competition: Game 5 of Thunder-Spurs on TNT, the Dodgers take on the Phillies on ESPN, though I don't think that's an exclusive broadcast. Reality fare like The Bachelor, America's Got Talent and Hell's Kitchen doesn't really draw anyone away from hockey, though American Ninja Warrior getting a shot on network television might take some of the bro audience away.
Prediction: Ever since the cable portion of the final moved from Games 1 & 2 to Games 3 & 4 in 2009 (personally, I think Game 1 should be on NBC, 2 & 3 on NBCSN, and 4-7 on NBC), it has been a legitimate boon for VERSUS, and now will be for NBC Sports Network. It makes for the channel's highest ratings of the calendar year. In addition, New York has the best penetration of any television market in the country when it comes to getting NBC Sports Network. I don't think we see 2010's record ratings, but I think it at least rises from last year. 2.95 million viewers for Game 3.
Wednesday, June 6, 8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network
Recent Game 4 Numbers
2011: 2.71 million
2010: 3.12 million
2009: 3.44 million
Competition: Basically, everything that was up against Game 1. Reality, repeats and hoops.
Prediction: Game 4 has dropped from Game 3 on VERSUS the past few years, but I'm going to bet against this trend. As I've said many times, this is a series that builds. 3.05 million viewers for Game 4.
Saturday, June 9, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
Recent Game 5 Numbers
2011: 4.35 million
2010: 5.95 million
2009: 4.28 million
Competition: Here's where things may get interesting. The Subway Series reconvenes in primetime on FOX on this night. Yankees-Mets or a Devils Game 5? New Jerseyans may not want to know the answer. Certainly doesn't help that the Dodgers are also in action on FOX that evening. However, a potential Game 7 between the Celtics and Heat might be more distressing than either.
X-Factor: This is also the day of NBC's broadcast of the Belmont Stakes. A potential Triple Crown winner could provide a very sizable lead-in for this game.
Prediction: Saturday always hurts, and this may very well be hinging on how many people check out of horse racing and into baseball and basketball. 4.50 million viewers for Game 5.
Monday, June 11, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
Recent Game 6 Numbers
2011: 5.26 million
2010: 7.57 million
2009: 5.45 million
Competition: Basketball waits for the NBA Finals, so that's all out of the way. Reality TV and baseball in June is the best we can do here.
Prediction: The third period of these Game 6's usually mean a lot. If it looks like the team up 3-2 will clinch the Stanley Cup, numbers will be huge. If it looks like we're headed for a tie series... still okay numbers, but not fantastic. That's why I'll tentatively mark down 5.40 million viewers for a Game 6.
Wednesday, June 13, 8 p.m. ET, NBC
Recent Game 7 Numbers
2011: 8.54 million
2009: 7.99 million
2006: 5.29 million
Competition: Doesn't really matter as long as there's no hoops. It's Game 7!
Prediction: I personally don't believe this series goes seven games, but if it does, it'll at least top the 7.17 million viewers that Devils-Ducks did in 2003. 7.85 million viewers for a Game 7.