I’ve spent enough time with sports and media to know that there’s always been a desire for networks and leagues to have two things happen with their post-season coverage: the largest markets, or as Nielsen calls them designated market areas (DMAs) are represented, and the series go the maximum length. The theories are steeped in pure mathematics: if there are more TV viewers represented in home cities, there is that much more of a likelihood for more viewers to tune in. If that market happens to be New York, so much the better, cuz that’s where the money comes from and if a buyer is swept up in the mania, so much the better.
So when the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs saw the exits of the two teams with New York in their names, including the Rangers (and, may I add, in as ugly and dispirited a fashion as I have ever seen a team in a must-win game swept away in any sport), the team representing the #2 market, Los Angeles, as well two U.S. markets with disproportionately strong passion bases, Boston (which supplied a Bruins team that registered more points in a single regular season than any team in NHL history) and Denver (where the defending Cup champs Colorado Avalanche play), there was a panic among many in the media who cover it that, oh boy, we’re f—ed.
The doomsday theory was sounded by several outlets that I respect tremendously, including the otherwise extremely smart and thorough team covering hockey at The Athletic, the New York Times-owned multiplatform aggregate whose podcasts are must listening for me (and, I would argue, any fan). Listening to Tuesday’s show, which was recorded shortly after the Rangers’ lackluster effort, reporter Sean Gentile, a younger voice from Pittsburgh (which missed the playoffs entirely for the first time in nearly two decades), rattled off the concerns based upon the markets that remained among the eight still in contention.
Per Nielsen, when the dust cleared, what remained were:
— Two Canadian teams whose markets aren’t included in the audience figures for the ESPN and T-Nets (Toronto and Edmonton)
–One Top 5 market (Dallas-Fort Worth), where pro hockey tends to rank no better than sixth in popularity behind baseball, pro football, college football, high school football and fantasy football)
— Market number 12 (Seattle) and 18 (Miami-Fort Lauderdale), which just happened to be the markets of the teams that upset the Bruins and Avs
— Two of the five smallest U.S. DMAs (Raleigh-Durham) and Las Vegas among the 21 represented among the 25 U.S. teams.
— And New Jersey, which although technically located within the #1 market has the smallest share of audience, no terrestrial radio deal and got a bunch of those passionate media buyers who were looking forward to a suite at Madison Square Garden forced to settle for a PATH ride to Newark.
But a funny thing happened when the actual audience results were released. Per Mark Scheig of The Hockey Writers:
On Tuesday, Warner Brothers Discovery released their viewership numbers for the first round on TNT and TBS with a sprinkle of TruTV in there if a game ran late. It was record breaking.
For the first round, WBD reports that overall ratings for the first round was up 18% from 2022. This made it the most watched first round on cable of all time with an average of 959,000 viewers per game throughout the first round.
In addition, Game 7 of the Florida Panthers/Boston Bruins series saw 3.2 million viewers tune into the game. This was the most watched first-round game ever on cable and the most watched first-round game on any channel in over a decade. The Bruins/Capitals game in 2012 was the last occurrence of this kind of viewership for one game in the opening round. At its peak, 4.1 million viewers were tuned in between 9:30pm and 9:56pm.
Then out west, the Seattle Kraken/Colorado Avalanche Game 7 drew in more than two million viewers. This was the most watched first-round game ever for the late window.
WBD also says that they’ve now televised the four most watched first-round games of all-time on cable.
And if you don’t think delivering seven-figure audiences in real time for Turner at a time when the appetite, proftiability and indeed, the producability of scripted TV with another sport beyond the NBA doesn’t make our friend Yosemite Zas one happy varmint, you haven’t seen him in negotiations.
And on Tuesday night, those same Panthers and Kraken-against head-to-head NBA competition involving the New York and Los Angeles DMAs (not to mention San Francisco), delivered these results, per FOX Sports:
Tuesday’s NHL Playoffs Conference Semifinals on ESPN began with Florida doubling up Toronto 4-2 in a game that posted 1,309,000 viewers, down 17% vs. last year’s conference semifinal average on ESPN (1,569,000). That was followed by Seattle sliding by Dallas 5-4 in overtime earning 1,406,000 viewers, down 10% vs. last year’s conference semifinal average.
We should point out that a) that’s FOX’s spin and b) last year’s conference semifinals featured the Rangers and Avalanche, and c) began two weeks later against weaker NBA competition.
But maybe fans tuned in to see how far these Cinderella teams could go, regardless of what city they’re from? Maybe hard-core hockey fans in those supposedly disinterested DMAs recognize how appealing and delicious such a storyline is? Perhaps that Kraken-Avs overtime finish peaked at such a high number because, as we’ve previously mused, there’s few more compelling sporting events of any kind than a Game 7 overtime in hockey, where the fate of an entire season rides on every shot on goal?
And I’m fairly bullish that the viewership numbers of Wednesday’s games, particularly the Edmonton-Vegas matchup in the later window, will do pretty darn well as well. There was only one NBA game on last night, and it was a blowout that proved to be unwatchable after halftime. Connor McDavid is a talent that merits attention, much in the manner that the NBA has successfully sold top players in smaller markets. So, in my mind, that’s three compelling series that will make up the league’s second round, and if the quality of the competitions that are unfolding remain, and games stay close, with a bunch of overtime thrillers in the mix, I’m not one bit worried at all.
In 2013 the last wave of the Lebron James-led Miami Heat competed against the last gasp of Tim Duncan and teh San Antonio Spurs (DMA #31 now, even smaller then) in the NBA finals. That series went the limit, and peaked with viewership of more than 26 million and an adult 18-49 rating of 10.6. Not that we’ll ever see numbers like that again in our lifetimes, but I think the argument against DMAs is all but obliterated by histories such as that and, more importantly, the relatively impressive results this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs are delivering.
So with all due respect to the young and impassioned Mr. Gentile and his colleagues, I’ll advise it’s the hockey, not the market, that attracts eyeballs. Just sit back and enjoy.