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Volume 23 No. 28
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NBC, ad buyers cheer NHL despite drop in Cup ratings

NBC and NHL executives hailed as a success their strategy of televising every Stanley Cup playoff game in its entirety for the first time this year, even if ratings for the Final and the league’s conference championship series dropped considerably.

Viewership dropped 33 percent for the six-game Stanley Cup Final and 8 percent for the conference finals from last year. For the entire postseason, viewership on NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC was down 14 percent compared with last year’s coverage on NBC and Versus (1.2 million viewers compared with 1.4 million).

“There are certain things that you can control and work on, and there are other things that you deal with as they come along,” said Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming. “Our advertising revenue is up. Sponsorship is up. We sold a lot more inventory because we had more games to sell. On every measurable metric that we look at to evaluate our first year of this partnership, we think that it was a huge success.”

NBC has said that ad sales around this year’s playoffs were up 40 percent, and ad buyers said they were satisfied with the playoffs’ overall TV performance.

“We were happy with it,” said Jeremy Carey, U.S. director for Optimum Sports, who said he bought a lot of ad time for brands during the playoffs. “We feel like we’ve seen a lot of growth in the sport throughout the year.”

Carey specifically mentioned the Final, which despite lower national ratings hit the nation’s two biggest markets.

“We feel like there’s going to be an upside to that the following year,” he said. “It tells a good story for the sport going forward.”

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins echoed that viewpoint, saying the league was “delighted” with the Stanley Cup playoff ratings.

“The shared objective to grow the ratings is an ongoing discussion with our NBC partners,” Collins said. “We’re going to discuss soon how we can build on it, but there is no question that the NHL on NBC is leaps and bounds from where we were just a few years ago.”

Much of that has to do with NBC and the NHL making every playoff game available on a national platform for the first time.

“The hockey fan really got taken care of this year,” Miller said. “That’s what our goal was. That was our strategy.”

Next year, Miller said he is looking for a schedule that eliminates overlapping games, something that forced a non-sports channel, CNBC, to carry 13 games. NBC Sports executives noted that when taking away the CNBC games, which typically featured less desirable matchups, viewership on NBC and NBCSN saw a slight increase.

The league will continue to focus on figuring out ways to get fans of specific teams to keep watching the playoffs even after their favorite teams have been eliminated.

“That was why we focused on the ‘Because It’s The Cup’ campaign,” Collins said. “We want to build national scale.”

As it has in years past, NBC and the NHL fielded many complaints about the fact that two Stanley Cup Final games — included a potential series-clinching Game 4 — were on NBC Sports Network, which is in 79 million homes, as opposed to being on the broadcast network.

Miller said the cable network will continue to carry Stanley Cup Final games.

“We’re going to stay with two games on NBC Sports Network for sure,” he said. “We’ll look at what the order is and which games we put on there. We may tweak that.”

Miller and Collins seemed most energized by the buzz created in the country’s second largest media market: Los Angeles.

“Last spring, we worked with focus groups in some of the major markets,” Collins said. “Boston and Chicago, with recent Stanley Cup champions, the numbers were incredibly strong. In New York, there is so much identification with the local teams. But in Los Angeles, to be blunt, we weren’t on the radar of the casual fans. Most people couldn’t name the Kings players.”

Citing the ratings for the series-clinching Game 6, a 13.6 local rating (the highest NHL rating ever in the Los Angeles market), Collins said, “It just goes to show how much a brand can grow in a year.”

SportsBusiness Daily Assistant Editor Austin Karp contributed to this report.