Without a team from Chicago, New York or Los Angeles in the NHL Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2011, Seth Winter, executive VP of sales and marketing for NBC Sports Group, knew heading into the final round that it was going to be tough to come close to last season’s record viewership that averaged 5.6 million viewers for the six game series.
Not helping was that Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, won by the Pittsburgh Penguins over the San Jose Sharks, was played on Memorial Day night when lots of people were still in transit on their way home from their long weekend of vacationing.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for the Cup Final’s opening TV matchup: The Golden State Warriors played Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on TNT that same night, drawing a network-record 15.9 million viewers. Their Game 1 drubbing of the Cleveland Cavaliers set a Game 1 record for ABC with 13.1 million viewers. And by the way, San Jose is in the same TV market as the Warriors.
Taking all that in consideration, the 4.08 million viewers NBC drew for Game 1 was not so bad. In fact, it was the best Cup Final Game 1 without an NHL Original Six (New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Toronto) team since 1999, when the Buffalo Sabres played the Dallas Stars on Fox drew 5.07 million.
The game also delivered a 1.4 18-49 demo rating to tie NBC with Fox as the most-watched network among that demo for the night.
Through the NHL Conference Finals the 70 games played on NBCU’s cable networks, including NBCSN, averaged 843,000 viewers, down 9% for the comparable period of the 2015 NHL Playoffs. But again, fewer major-market teams advanced to later rounds of the playoffs. The hockey gods just did not cooperate with NBC Sports this playoff season.
However making the situation brighter for NBC Sports is that Winter’s sales team, heading into the Final, had sold about $5 million more this hockey season in ad revenue throughout the playoffs. So a soft Cup Final ratings performance won’t hurt as much.
And there won’t be any more head-to-head matchups with the NBA Finals, which has a repeat of last year’s series of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Steph Curry and the Warriors that produced the highest-rated NBA Finals ever on ABC.
Winter says the network is still selling inventory for the remaining Cup Final games and that if the ratings do not meet guarantees, that NBC has enough makegoods to meet audience deficiencies as the playoffs continue.
“We’re making advertisers whole as the series finals progress and giving them ADUs to compensate for whatever under-delivery there is,” Winter says. “We are still in sale and expect to write more business as long as the Finals continue.”
They may not continue that long however, as the Penguins won 2-1 in overtime on Wednesday night to jump to a 2-0 lead in the best of 7 series. Next game is Saturday night.
Winter says while the lack of a major market city team may hold down the ratings, the NHL audience has still been an attractive one for marketers who want to reach millennial men.
“The NHL has one of the youngest, most upscale audiences among all the sports." And he adds, it’s been an “attractive environment for auto advertisers.”
Lexus, Mercedes, GM, Chevy and Chrysler are among the auto advertisers, along with official sponsor Honda, who have bought time during the season and into the playoffs.
Other strong categories throughout the season and playoffs have been quick service restaurants, insurance, and technology.
Despite the soft Final ratings, Winter says the hockey season on the NBCU networks as a whole “has been very good once again,” adding that “we have already generated a lot of advertiser renewals for next season.”
NBC Sports sells the NHL telecasts primarily as total season packages for marketers and Winter says the league “is continuing to bring in sponsors in new categories and we are working closely with the league in that regard.”