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Does the NBC and NHL agreement work for both sides?

The 2017 Stanley Cup Final is smashing last year’s viewing records on NBC. However, is the game growing enough on the network?

Last season, viewers did not tune in at a high rate to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins dispatch the San Jose Sharks. The six-game average had a meager four million viewers and 2.3 household rating, meaning 2.3 percent of American households tuned in to watch. It was the third-fewest totals since 2006 and dropped almost 1.5 million viewers from the previous final.

Fortunately, this series has captivated the national audience once again. The Nashville Predators have essentially brought it back. The team has unexpectedly run through the titans of the Western Conference and rallied an entire city together.

PPG Paints Arena was rocking in Game 5, and it was audible on NBC.
PPG Paints Arena, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Photo courtesy of Scout.com

After dropping the first two games of the series, the fans turned out to Bridgestone Arena and in their homes. Game Four’s 4-1 Predators win had 28 percent of Nashville watch on their television sets. Nationally, on NBC, an estimated 5.5 million viewers tuned in, though that number doesn’t account for time-zone adjustments. Nonetheless, it was more than the viewers from last season. Even in Game Five’s 6-0 Penguins blowout, 4.3 million watched the spectacle.

With the ratings success for the Stanley Cup, the NHL faces obstacles as it seeks to increase its television presence. The question is if they can do that under their current operation.

The NBC Sports and NHL Dynamic

The current media agreement between NBC and the NHL began in 2011. The two sides agreed on a 10-year deal worth $2 billion. This deal included “Game of the Week” time-slots and 100 regular-season telecasts. When Versus, which NBC owned at the time, switched to NBC Sports Network, the coverage stayed the same.

This deal kept hockey on a relevant network as it transitioned from ESPN. At present time, however, critics argue that the agreement with both networks harms hockey’s growth. Because NBC has the ability to air games on NBCSN, they receive criticism for not broadcasting games on their main channel.

NBC Sports Network is not on as many U.S. televisions as NBC. This is accurate, but NBCSN’s presence in homes is rapidly growing. In June of 2016, about 77 percent of American homes received NBC Sports Network. Fast forward to this past March, and the channel has 83,790,000 subscribers, which slightly trails Fox Sports 1. This is up from 70 percent back in early 2015. The channel is gaining ground in subscribers, and NBC wants to aid its station with Stanley Cup Final games.

Despite the growth in the channel, however, its ratings pale in comparison to NBC. Game Two and Game Three had 3.2 and three million viewers, compared to over four million in the other games. This has brought the average down to 4.2 million through the first five games of this current series. Historically, NBCSN averages fewer ratings since they began airing games under that identity in 2012. Surely, the ratings would improve if NBCSN was not in the equation, but NBC does not want to take the exposure away.

NHL on NBC
Last season, the NHL simulcasted playoff coverage on NBC and other networks. Photo courtesy of Awful Announcing

Improving the Relationship

While the NBC deal harms the overall outlook of the NHL’s ratings, the NHL needs to work out its relationship with NBC to improve the deal for its own side. Other sports such as the NBA exclusively have their Finals game on one network, ABC. Their ratings float around the 16 million mark, almost four times as much as the NHL. Basketball historically achieves more ratings than hockey because of its popularity, but that’s an argument for a different article.

For the NHL, they have to fight NBC itself to have those same rights, and it depends on the rise of NBCSN. The NHL helps NBCSN grow while the NHL has issues catching up to other sports. In a way, they have to fight NBC’s regular lineup as well. At 8 p.m. on May 31st, while Game Two aired on NBCSN, Little Big Shots grabbed 7.56 million viewers in the 18-49 demographic. Stanley Cup Final games have only surpassed that on the main channel five times, all of which were series clinchers. If NBC decides that a hockey game can’t attract more viewers, then it shifts to NBCSN.

Based on the past numbers and the way this current series is unfolding, hockey can grow on NBC. The sport has to increase its popularity in North America, which the NHL has to facilitate itself. Perhaps Nashville has laid out the blueprint for mid-market teams to galvanize their fanbase. Teams like that will help the game improve too. Hopefully, this will mean NBC is more willing to show off such teams and matchups like Pittsburgh and Nashville.

Conclusion

The 2017 Stanley Cup Final has been full of entertaining hockey. NBC has done well to promote it. However, both sides can benefit from increasing the NHL’s exposure to grow the game and jump on this year’s ratings spike. Both sides need to see how that is possible for it to fully happen.

Feature image courtesy of Awful Announcing

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