When the puck finally drops on the NHL’s abbreviated 48-game season on Saturday, the league’s main TV partner NBC Sports Group hopes fans are in a forgiving mood.
“As we [know], the hockey fans are a passionate group and we’re cautiously optimistic they’ll come back,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
The 113-day lockout, which ended up canceling roughly 41% of season (510 games), threatens to freeze the ratings momentum that the league built last year.
NBC Sports Group, which is in the second year of a 10-year, $2 billion rights deal with the league, knows it has a tough road ahead. “It won’t be instant,” said Flood. “You’ve got to regain the trust.” Flood said he is not worried about the “core fans,” who he knows will come back. “It’s the casual viewer,” he said. “We’ve got to get them back.”
While the NHL lags far behind the other Big Four sports leagues in terms of audience, the league showed tremendous growth during last spring’s Stanley Cup Playoffs — the first time each game was aired to a national audience — with coverage across NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC up 4% over 2011 and setting numerous ratings records along with way.
That viewership bump would have been higher if not for the Stanley Cup Finals, however. The five-game series between the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils (the top two DMAs) averaged a little over three million viewers between NBC and NBC Sports Network. Even so, the league had its best conference quarter- and semi-finals on record and its first three rounds were the most-watched in 15 years.
Making things harder is that the league already lost the Winter Classic, which annually is the most-watched game during the season. It has averaged around four million viewers over the past four years. “It was incredibly frustrating not to have our No. 1 product on the air,” said Flood.
NBC Sports Group will air 70 regular-season games across NBC and NBC Sports Network this season. The schedule includes 14 exclusive windows (15 games) on NBC, the most regular-season windows ever for the network, as well as 24 exclusive windows and 26 exclusive games on NBC Sports Network.
One way NBC Sports Group is hoping to drum up excitement for hockey is the introduction of “Rivalry Wednesdays,” where NBC Sports Network will showcase some of the league’s most popular rivalries, including Blues-Red Wings, Bruins-Rangers and Flyers-Penguins. “There’s something about hatred in hockey that’s a good thing,” joked Flood.
Something to give NBC and the NHL hope: Both the NFL and NBA, which had lockouts of their own in 2011, experienced huge ratings gains after. “As we learned the last time there was a lockout, the fans eventually came back,” said Flood. “The numbers grew and the game of hockey grew.”