Big Hockey Markets Tuning Out To Blame For Game 1's Low Ratings

NEW YORK NY - JANUARY 19: (L-R) Broadcaster Bob Costas and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman take in the game between the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden on January 19 2011 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Leafs 7-0. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

So-called "hockey towns" tune out for the Stanley Cup Finals.

Much was made yesterday about how the NBA Conference Finals on ESPN outdrew the Stanley Cup Finals on NBC in Los Angeles and New York, the two home markets being represented in the NHL's championship series. I disagree with such claims, because you have to remember that New York and Los Angeles are basketball towns. The game lives and breathes in those places. There are two teams in LA that had great seasons this year; New York never gives up on Knicks teams that are even mediocre, and the New Jersey franchise relocating to Brooklyn will probably find some way to succeed there as well.

The basketball towns came through and watched a big basketball game. The hockey towns... well, they just turned off the television.

Let's look at the top five ratings markets outside of the home markets for Game 1 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks:

  • 1. Buffalo – 7.2/11
  • 2. Pittsburgh – 4.3/7
  • 3. Minneapolis/St. Paul – 4.2/8
  • 4. Detroit – 4.2/7
  • 5. Columbus – 3.6/6

Despite being a feeling out game and a goalless stalemate for 59 minutes, the cities you'd expect all pretty much tuned in. Places like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago and Washington weren't far behind. The cities that are traditionally considered hockey cities were at least above the national average for the game.

Now, let's look at the top non-home markets for Game 1 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals:

  • 1. Buffalo - 7.8/12
  • 2. Minneapolis/St. Paul - 4.2/8
  • 3. Pittsburgh - 3.5/6
  • 4. Oklahoma City - 3.5/5

Oklahoma City got higher ratings than 17 American NHL markets. Now, Oklahoma City is the 45th largest television market in America. The only NHL market it's larger than is Buffalo. But still... a 3.5 ain't exactly lighting the world on fire, and it's about what you'd maybe expect from a town that is primarily known for basketball.

And, as a second amendment to this, I'll throw out some excuses these big NHL markets may have had. Boston's is the most legitimate, as the Celtics were playing. Washington was hosting the U.S. Men's National Team against Brazil, though that doesn't usually translate to ratings bonanzas for the home market. St. Louis had a Cardinals game, Detroit had the Tigers, Chicago had whatever those two flailing baseball teams were up to, Columbus... I don't know, did a fire knock out a huge block of Nielsen houses?

But still, look at these cities I've named: Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, hell I'll even throw in Denver, which usually shows up for big national games. Pittsburgh seeing a pretty sizable drop. These markets are supposed to be either A. traditional hockey towns with more than 40 years of NHL experience, or B. Big cities where the hockey team has seen a huge resurgence in recent years (i.e. Washington, Chicago). These are the cities you have to count on to draw respectable ratings for your big events.

It was these cities that failed for Game 1. It isn't the fault of New York or Los Angeles. Those are massive markets where a 5.1 and a 4.2 are big deals. The number of viewers, however, combined between the two markets did not equal the number of viewers from Boston for Game 1 last year. This was the type of Stanley Cup Finals where the NHL badly needed its new promotional strategy of televising every game of the playoffs to pay off. They really had to hope fans wouldn't just tune out when their team hit the golf courses.

It didn't work. Maybe in a few years, people will develop the viewing habits necessary to stay with the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But hockey remains too parochial. It is such an emotional journey that some diehards can't bear to watch further, and casual fans all go about their summers. You have to wonder what we need to do to get people to stick around. Make the playoffs earlier? (Can't happen, because of American TV's May sweeps period) Pay off Nielsen families? Start getting teams to hold more events related to the Stanley Cup Finals, similar to how every team has a draft party, and some have an NHL Awards party? Even more promotion?

NBC is doing a very good job of trying to provide a Stanley Cup Finals that features none of the big market favorites. Starting off with Bob Costas in Game 1 and Al Michaels in Game 3 lends significance to any event. Mike Emrick's voice can get any hockey fan going. The promotional material -- i.e. that fantastic "Boys" commercial -- is second to none. It isn't resulting in viewers, however.

It's a question that needs answering. NBC has nine more years of broadcasting this league. They are paying upwards of $200 million a year to do so, mostly so that they can fill hours of precious airspace on their new cable network until the long hoped for second sporting property (the NFL on Thursdays, or the Big East, or baseball) that may never come along finally shows up. They need a better payoff for these games.

Whatever caused this, it isn't a referendum on where hockey is in the minds of viewers in Los Angeles and New Jersey. It's a referendum on where hockey is in the minds of its own fans once their team is knocked out. It is a problem that I'm sure drives Gary Bettman and various TV executives crazy, and it even drives me crazy to write about it. If we're all going to provide lip service to how hockey is the best sport in the world and the mainstream media should be covering it more, why aren't we tuning in to help justify said coverage?

We won't learn the answer this year, or maybe even a few years down the line, but it is the long frustrating rubix cube that Gary Bettman needs to solve.

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