The NHL has lucked out in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with four of its most popular teams reaching the semifinals.
The New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens are all in contention to win the championship. It marks the first time in league history that the three largest U.S. cities are represented in the round before the finals. It’s just the second time in 21 years that the team from Canada’s second largest city has advanced this far into the postseason.
It would have been difficult for the league to design a better scenario, considering the final four teams all hail from major cities with loyal fanbases. Still, the NHL has always been a distant No.4 behind the NFL, NBA and MLB, and not even a small surge from big-city viewers should change that.
That's even if viewers from the big cities and hockey fans are even watching.
Across the board, ratings for this year’s postseason have, in fact, increased. The first round saw viewership increase by 57 percent from last year, with NBC, CNBC and the NBC Sports Network combining to average 752,000 viewers.
The extra attention continued in the second round. It’s the highest viewership that the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs have drawn on cable since 1994, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup. Viewership on NBC is up 10 percent from last season.
While the Eastern Conference Finals has drawn plenty of interest, NBC’s ratings have taken a major hit because of the involvement of a Canadian team. The 2013 conference finals averaged 2.94 million viewers, but NBC is only averaging 1.58 million in 2014.
Locally, however, New York and Montreal are doing very strong ratings. Game Five was the highest-rated NHL game in New York on NBC or the NBC Sports Network. In Canada, viewership for the series has also been strong. Overall, the ratings have increased by 24 percent, compared to the last time an Eastern Conference finals featured a Canadian team, according to the Toronto Sun.
In the West, ratings are slightly up. The Blackhawks and Kings are facing each other for a second straight season in the conference finals. Compared to last year’s matchup, the average viewership is up 12 percent.
Having Chicago this deep into the playoffs has, considerably, helped improve ratings. In 2012, when the Kings faced the Phoenix Coyotes in the conference finals, the series averaged just more than half of the 2014 viewers.
As the Stanley Cups Finals approaches, the NHL is most likely rooting for New York and Chicago to advance. The Rangers currently have a 3-2 series lead over the Canadiens, while the Blackhawks trail the Kings, through five games.
“Well, there’s no rooting, but there’s no doubt about the ratings game,” current NBC Sports Network analyst and former NHL star Jeremy Roenick said on “The Damon Amendolara Show.”
“The ratings are extremely important to the producers on NBC and, I think, to the National Hockey League. You cannot go wrong having one of the biggest-market teams – especially the Rangers, and Original Six – being in the Stanley Cup Finals. Nothing against Montreal, but for ratings there’s no question they would love to see a Chicago/New York final.”
Los Angeles may rank ahead of Chicago in terms of city population, but the Blackhawks would give a much bigger boost to television ratings. When the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, they generated the lowest ratings in five years. Last year, Chicago won the most-watched Stanley Cup Final in recorded history.
The Rangers would be the ideal opponent for the Blackhawks. Not only are they setting record TV ratings for hockey in New York, but ticket prices at Madison Square Garden are generating a lot of money for the league. Shortly after the Canadiens forced Game Six, the average ticket price on the secondary ticket market was $965.74, according to Tiq IQ. Less than seven hours before the start of the potential clincher, the cheapest seats were going for $367.
Despite increased interest in the product, the NHL has uphill battle against the other major sports. The NBA playoffs have dominated the NHL in ratings, even in cities that have a hockey team still competing. On May 18, Game One of the series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers drew a 6.1 rating in Los Angeles, compared to the 2.1 rating the Kings-Blackhawks contest.