NBC’s National Hockey League and Stanley Cup swan song began on Monday.
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s title defense began with a 5-1 thumping of the visiting Montreal Canadiens, which is making its first finals appearance since winning an NHL-record 24th championship in 1993.
NBC said the game averaged 1.66 million combined viewers on its NBCSN cable channel and Peacock streaming audience. That makes it the least-watched Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final since 2007, per historic data from Sports Media Watch. The 2007 Senators-Ducks opener averaged 769,000 on Versus (remember Versus? That was NBCSN’s name from 2006-11).
Last year, when the pandemic forced the delayed NHL playoffs into so-called bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, the Lightning-Dallas Stars Game 1 aired on NBC and it averaged 2.16 million total viewers. The broadcast networks have larger numbers of viewers than cable channels, so that accounts for at least some of the difference. Monday’s Game 1 was the first on cable since 2008. Also, having a Canadian team in the Final is rare (the last was Vancouver in 2011) and may not resonate with a more casual American hockey audience.
Monday’s Game 1 ranked fourth among sporting television programming:
Monday Sports TV
Clippers-Suns on ESPN: 5.744 million viewers
American Ninja Warrior on NBC: 3.248M
France-Switzerland on ESPN: 1.871M
Canadiens-Lightning on NBCSN: 1.569M
Croatia-Spain on ESPN: 1.101M
Wimbledon on ESPN2: 621,000
College World Series on ESPN2: 385,000
— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) June 29, 2021
The 2020 Stanley Cup Final was played in September and put the games into American football season. This year, they’re closer to their traditional timeframe and don’t face eyeball-drain from the NFL TV ratings beast.
In a statement, NBC contrasted Monday’s NBCSN numbers against last season’s Final: Game 1 was up 39 percent compared to the cable network’s first Stanley Cup Final game in 2020, which was Game 2 with 1.2 million, on average, watching.
Monday’s game peaked with 1.78 million TV-only viewers. And on the streaming side, the average minute audience of 100,900 viewers made it the most-streamed game of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs to date, NBC said.
The entire Stanley Cup playoffs so far have averaged 924,000 viewers (TV and streaming), which NBC said is up 7 percent over last season through the same point.
Last year’s Stanley Cup Final was played entirely in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble amid a live sports TV ecosphere absolutely clobbered by the pandemic’s effect on viewership. Tampa Bay’s six-game series victory averaged 2.15 million across linear and streaming, which was a 61-percent plunge from 2019. The Game 6 clincher averaged 2.95 million across NBC properties, but aired against a marquee “Monday Night Football” game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens that averaged 14 million on ESPN.
The 2021 pandemic-shortened NHL regular season averaged 391,000 TV and digital viewers across NBC and NBCSN, according to Sports Business Journal. That was the smallest average for any season under the network’s current deal. The peak was 590,000 in 2012-13.
Most NHL games air on local networks. NBC and its cable and digital channels aired 103 games this season. The average over the 10-year broadcast rights deal was 101 games.
Another viewership recovery story was NBCSN’s “Wednesday Night Hockey” that averaged 508,000 viewers across 15 games in 2021, per Sports Business Journal. That average was up 15 percent from the 441,000 viewer average over 21 games last season.
While there is a lot of fan and pundit hand-wringing over sports viewership numbers, the dollars involved are what ultimately count. This year’s NHL playoffs have seen an uptick in TV advertising spending to $89 million so far compared to $84 million in 2020 (those figures don’t include the Final because this year’s are not yet finished), according to data firm EDO that analyzes advertising spending and how viewers engage online with the commercials.
And brands buying commercial airtime on NBCUniversal networks airing the NHL playoffs are seeing a year-over-year 7-percent increase in viewers searching for those companies’ products or services online, EDO said.
But whatever the ratings and ad spending turn out to be, NBC is moving on from the NHL. The network’s NHL broadcast rights deal ends after this season, and it opted not to out-spend Disney’s ESPN/ABC and AT&T WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports for the next deal.
NBC landed NHL games in 2005 and its most recent contract paid the league $2 billion over 10 years, or $200 million a season. It’s aired games on its over-the-air national channel along its USA cable network, the soon-to-shutter NBC Sports Network, and the Peacock streaming service.
Next season, the games migrate to the separate networks.
ESPN/ABC will pay a reported $2.8 billion through 2027-28 for live NHL games. That’s about $400 million a season for the league’s primary package in a deal struck in March.
In April, the NHL and Tuner Sports agreed to a reported seven-year, $1.57 billion deal. That’s about $225 million a season.
The league’s 12-year, $4.9 billion Canadian TV rights contract with Rogers Communications ends in 2026.
While it’s the smallest of the four legacy U.S. major leagues in terms of revenue and TV viewership, the NHL got a nice network payday regardless of ratings and trends.
Game 2 of this year’s Stanley Cup Final airs live from Tampa Bay at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN and Peacock. NBC will air Games 3 and 4 on Friday and Monday, respectively, and the rest of the series if Games 5-7 are necessary. Peacock is streaming only the first two games; NBC hasn’t explained why.
In Canada, all games are airing on CBC, Sportsnet and TVA Sports.
GYMNASTICS: Simone Biles is very much a major face of this year’s Team USA as we inch toward the year-delayed Tokyo Olympics next month. On Sunday, her floor routine at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials averaged 6.6 million viewers between 9:45 and 10 p.m. ET on NBC, which was the event’s peak audience number. The women’s finals overall averaged 5.75 million viewers, which Sports Media Watch noted was the smallest audience dating to 2000. The 2016 women’s trials averaged 8.58 million and the 2012 event averaged 10.02 million. Still, the Sunday broadcast was the most-watched sporting event that day, topping the 5.59 million average for Khris Middleton and the Milwaukee Bucks rallying to beat the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals on TNT, per data from John Ourand of Sports Business Journal.
SPORTING FOOD: America is a land of weird traditions, and one of those is competitive eating. And it’s time for the “Nathan’s Famous 2021 Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest” that ESPN will air as part of the nation’s independence celebration. Only in America, right? The World Wide Leader says it will begin live coverage of the women’s competition on ESPN3 at 11:30 a.m. Sunday followed by the men’s event at noon on ESPN itself. BUT WAIT! ESPN3 will devote a camera feed to Joey Chestnut’s attempt to “break his world record of 75 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.” Chestnut and his digestive system are trying to win the event for the 14th time in 15 years. The event airs live from Maimonides Park at New York’s Coney Island, and Mike Golic Jr. is doing ESPN’s play-by-play. The network says there will be “in-depth analysis by Major League Eating’s Richard Shea,” who is zero relation to me. And on a personal note, I prefer ketchup over mustard when it comes to hot dog condiments. Feel free to get mad about that in the comments.
ALSO ON TV: The best-of-three College World Series Finals concludes either Tuesday or Wednesday night. Defending champion No. 4 Vanderbilt took the opener 8-2 from No. 7 Mississippi State in Omaha. The games air at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN (Tuesday) and ESPN2 (Wednesday, if necessary). … The NBA conference finals continue this week on ESPN and TNT, and the finals are set to begin next week on ABC. The biggest-market team left is the Los Angeles Clippers, but they’re a shadow of the TV draw of the Lakers. That said, their audiences are closer to 2019 than to 2020, and the finals are a potential showcase for rising and new stars (read Ethan Strauss’ analysis of the NBA viewership situation here). …Wimbledon, which was mothballed last summer because of COVID-19, began on Monday, and continues through the finals on July 10-11. The matches at London’s All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club air on ESPN and ESPN2. Absent this year are significant names such as Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka, however, and Serena Williams was forced to exit on Tuesday with an injury. … Euro 2020 continues through the knockout stage this week toward the July 11 final at Wembley Stadium in London that will air at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN. … The PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Golf Club begins Thursday. Bryson DeChambeau returns as the 2020 winner. The Thursday-Friday coverage, and early coverage on the weekend, is on the Golf Channel. CBS airs the tournament from 3-6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. … ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” on July 4 is a “Subway Series” game betwixt the Yankees and Mets at Yankee Stadium, at 7 p.m. There will be a Statcast telecast of the game on ESPN2.
(Photo of the Lightning celebrating a Game 1 goal on Monday: Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)