The NHL, which historically has taken a back seat to the three other major North American sports, entered the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals with grand hopes that a matchup between the two largest media markets would generate increased attention, and so far the expectations have been realized.
Games One and Two of the best-of-seven series between the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings have been a boon for the league and NBC, with the Kings’ dramatic overtime wins in both games only adding to the excitement. According to Nielsen, Wednesday’s Game One reached 5.7 million viewers at its peak. On Saturday, 6.4 million viewers watched the Stanley Cup at its peak, which set a record for a Game Two.
The N.Y.- L.A. matchup is a far cry from Stanley Cup Finals with smaller media markets. In 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes faced the Edmonton Oilers to little fanfare. While the series went seven games, it was largely ignored by the mainstream press.
That hasn’t been the case in 2014. Major media outlets like ESPN seem to have boosted coverage of the Cup more than in years’ past. The network’s flagship program, “SportsCenter,” has devoted ample reporting for the Cup despite not carrying the Cup’s television rights.
In 2012, when the Kings faced the New Jersey Devils in a series devoid of any significant drama or excitement, ticket prices were far lower and media coverage was scarce.
Much of the interest appears to be helped by this being the first championship matchup between pro sports teams from New York and Los Angeles since the Yankees and Dodgers in 1981. The N.Y.-L.A. rivalry and storyline has bolstered hockey attention in both cities.
The journey for the two teams has also raised eyebrows. This is the first trip to the Stanley Cup for the Rangers in 20 years and few experts expected them to get this far, while the Kings are seeking their second title in three years with a squad that has been pushed to the limit in three previous series.
While the ratings have been high, this Stanley Cup is also expected to be the most expensive ever. Darren Rovell of ESPN reported that the Kings set a team record in Game One for most ticket sales for one game and a record for merchandise bought by one fan, and also broke a Staples Center record for most standing-room only tickets.
Meanwhile, ticket prices soared for the first two games. According to TiqIQ, the average rate for a Game Two ticket was $946.The prices will be more than double that in New York.
The series shifts to Madison Square Garden for Game Three on Monday night. Both games in Los Angeles featured a sudden-death goal, which should elevate excitement for Game Three.
New York is not only the most populated U.S. city, but also a cold-weather town with a large and loyal Rangers fan base. An advantage that hockey has over other sports, is that a team being down 2-0 in a playoff series doesn’t necessarily doom them for the series. In fact, in the first round of the playoffs, the Kings fought back from a 3-0 series deficit to the San Jose Sharks to win four straight. The improbable Rangers run was highlighted by their come-from-behind win over the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins after trailing the series 3-1.
However, not all of the news is rosy for the NHL. Chicago, the No. 3 market in the country, didn’t finish within the Top 10 markets for Game One ratings, falling short to less-populated cities like Buffalo and Providence. NBC is probably not pleased to have such a large hockey-obsessed market show such little interest in the championship series. In 2013, NBC received record ratings when the Chicago Blackhawks faced the Boston Bruins. Ratings weren’t particularly high in Beantown either for the Kings-Rangers series.
The league has always faced an uphill battle against the likes of the NFL and Major League Baseball, not to mention the NBA, which is currently in their own Finals. ABC’s viewership soared to 11 million for Thursday’s Game One of theNBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.
Overall, the NHL is likely pleased that the Kings and Rangers advanced this far, and have played exciting hockey. Though it might be a letdown that the Blackhawks and Bruins aren’t back in the Stanley Cup, NBC and the NHL may have gotten the next best thing.