NHL ratings bump from Sochi hockey unlikely

The U.S. men’s hockey team’s shootout win over Russia at the Olympics drew 4.1 million viewers, the biggest audience to watch a hockey game on NBC Sports Network. Four days later, NBC Sports Group set an online record when 798,337 unique users streamed the U.S. team’s win over the Czech Republic, the most for any Olympic event.

Both records were certain to fall again last week, with the U.S. playing Canada in a semifinal game on Friday.

With the NHL scheduled to resume its season this week, executives close to the sport are monitoring whether an Olympic halo effect will draw more interest to the league. But based on a review of TV ratings from past years, analysts say the NHL should not expect much of an Olympic bounce — a situation that could reinforce the question about whether the league will allow its players to participate in future Olympic Games.

“An NHL ratings bump from the Olympics has never happened before,” said Horizon Media research director Brad Adgate. “They have two different allegiances. The Olympics is event programming: a live sporting event that’s on a global stage with national pride at stake. The NHL hasn’t reached that level yet.”

Four years ago, the U.S.-Canada gold-medal

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hockey game from Vancouver posted huge television numbers: a 15.3 rating and 27.6 million viewers for its Sunday afternoon broadcast on NBC. Those levels were on par with NFL playoff games from the previous month.

But NHL games on NBC and NBCSN, which was then called Versus, registered only a small subsequent lift — immediately and years later — from those games. The year before the 2010 Olympics, NHL games on NBC during March and April averaged a 0.7 rating; in the months after the Vancouver Games (in March and April 2010) they averaged a 0.8 rating. NBCSN posted similar numbers: In March and April of 2009, NHL games averaged a 0.1 rating; in March and April of 2010, they averaged a 0.2.

Adgate described those ratings increases as relatively insignificant, and some in the ad buying community expected the bump to be much higher at that time after such a popular gold-medal game.

“The feeling is that if the U.S. Olympic team does well, then the NHL does well,” said Jeremy Carey, U.S. director for Optimum Sports. “But that doesn’t always translate. We’re always hopeful that there’s some impact.”

Going into the Sochi Games, NBC had averaged a 1.3 rating and 2.3 million viewers for its five NHL games, and NBCSN had averaged a 0.2 rating and 344,000 viewers for its 54 games. Those numbers include the Winter Classic and several Stadium Series events that earned strong TV ratings.

Insiders will be monitoring the numbers closely to see if the popularity of Olympic hockey will lead to increased ratings. The answer could factor into the league’s thinking on whether it will continue to participate in future Olympic Games. Rumors have persisted this year that these Olympics would be the last ones to include NHL players.

Last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in Sochi that the NHL has not made a decision on the future, but he did point out that the league loses 17 days of being on national and local television because of its Olympics break.

League officials will ask if it makes sense to put their season on hold fif the league does not get a significant ratings bump.

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