Why the NHL is Hot and the NBA is Not (Again)


In 1994, the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’ ran a provocative headline that is likely framed somewhere in NHL headquarters: Why the NHL?s Hot and the NBA?s Not.

The article itself is hardly as well known as the headline, and not quite as cut and dry. ?No one is suggesting that the popularity of the NBA is in free fall,? E.M. Swift wrote (though many publications would claim as much over the next decade). As for the NHL, ratings on ESPN did not reflect the “surge in hockey interest” (SI, 6/20/94).

The story painted a picture that was partly true. For the NBA, 1994 was a Jordan-free year that included a pair of playoff brawls and culminated with a ratings dud in the NBA Finals. For the NHL, 1994 was the year of the Rangers’ memorable run to the championship. Even in a down year, however, the NBA still had a substantial lead over the surging NHL. Consider that Game 7 of the Knicks/Rockets NBA Finals drew a 17.9 U.S. rating on NBC. By contrast, Game 7 of the Rangers/Canucks Stanley Cup Finals drew a 5.2 cable rating on ESPN (a 6.9 when the local New York audience on MSG Network was included).

All of which is to say that the suggestion that ‘the NHL is hot’ and the ‘NBA is not’ is relative. To make that suggestion today is not to say that the NHL has caught up with the NBA. Indeed, it has not and likely never will. With that said, one cannot overlook momentum, and the NHL seems to have the NBA beaten in that area — at least during the postseason.

The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs has earned surprisingly strong numbers on NBC and NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus). The first three weeks of the playoffs on NBC were the most-viewed on broadcast since 1998, with Game 6 of the Bruins/Capitals first round series earning the largest non-final audience since 1997. On NBC Sports Network, exclusive second round coverage was up 48% through the first ten days of play, with the caveat that several of last year?s games were blacked out in home markets.

On May 2, the Rangers? triple-overtime win over the Capitals in Game 3 of their second round series drew 1.9 million viewers on NBC Sports Network, the highest for a second round game on cable since 2000 ? and slightly ahead of a Jazz/Spurs NBA playoff blowout on TNT. Not bad, considering that NBC Sports Network was in nearly 20 million fewer homes than TNT at the start of April.

For the NBA, the postseason has offered a different story. After ABC and TNT both had their most-viewed regular seasons ever, the majority of first round playoff games have suffered declines in viewership. The previously mentioned Jazz/Spurs game and the Clippers/Grizzlies matchup that followed were both down over 40% from the comparable games in 2010 (one of which, to be fair, involved the Lakers).

It may be tempting to blame injuries to star players. Game 2 of the Sixers/Bulls series, the first without injured Bulls star Derrick Rose, was down 34% from last year. However, Game 1 of the same series — in which Rose played 37 minutes before his season-ending injury ? was down 31%. It may also be tempting to blame lingering fan resentment from the lockout, but the record ratings from the regular season would seem to counter that argument.

Perhaps the best explanation is that last year?s record pace (TNT had the most-viewed postseason ever on cable) was simply too much to keep up with. Most of this year’s games have had increases compared to 2010.

Even with the apparent enthusiasm gap between the Stanley Cup and NBA playoffs, the NBA still has a dominant lead overall. The NHL cannot be too proud that a triple-overtime game involving top ten media markets New York (#1) and Washington, D.C. (#8) could only barely eke out a ratings victory over a 31-point blowout between the #33 (Salt Lake City) and #36 (San Antonio) markets. The 3.52 million viewers for Bruins/Capitals — again, a fifteen-year high — has been exceeded by fifteen of the first 29* NBA playoff games this year.

The NHL is much more competitive on a local level. In Boston, for example, the Bruins (4.7) outrated the Celtics (3.24^) during the regular season, and last year’s Bruins/Canucks Stanley Cup Final averaged a higher rating than the Celtics/Lakers NBA Finals a year earlier (28.1 to 25.0). In Philadelphia, the Flyers (3.3) topped the Sixers (2.4) during the regular season and beat them by 226% when their playoff games aired head-to-head on May 1.

But those are just two markets, and the NBA can claim supremacy in others. In New York, the Knicks (3.3) outdrew the Rangers (0.99) by 233% on MSG during the regular season, and Game 1 of their first round series against the Heat more than doubled Game 1 of the Rangers/Capitals second round series head-to-head on April 28. In Chicago, the Bulls outdrew the Blackhawks by 87% on CSN Chicago during the regular season.

So even if the NHL can claim victory in a few markets, do not expect the league to catch up with the NBA anytime soon. The gap is simply too wide, and momentum does not always last.

With the NBA looking forward to potential Thunder/Lakers and Celtics/Heat series and the NHL possibly staring down the barrel of a Devils/Coyotes Stanley Cup Final, the leagues’ respective fortunes could change in mere weeks. Then again, if the NHL gets a Rangers/Kings dream series in the Stanley Cup Final and the Spurs make it back to the NBA Finals, it could be time for another SI cover story.

Either way, the NHL can enjoy its good fortune for at least the time being. In a year where ratings have slumped for the NBA Playoffs, the Stanley Cup Playoffs may be the hottest sporting event going. For the first time in eighteen years, that infamous SI cover is dead on.

* Does not include Bulls/Sixers Game 4 or Heat/Knicks Game 4 on ABC, as viewership for those games was not available.
^ Sports Business Journal data was current through the final week of the regular season

(Some information included from Sports Illustrated, philly.com, Sports Business Journal, New York Times, New York Times 6/16/94)

  • JakeFrankie

    If Stanley Cups is the hottest thing going, Why is the NBA playoff dominating it in the ratings battle? Even if the Spurs make the NBA Finals it will still easily beat ANY Stanley Cup series. I think the Article should say NBA is Always hot while the NHL is Never hot.

    • Travelpat

      And of course the reverse will always be true in the other country that has teams in – and TV contracts for the NBA and NHL. I know numbers for the second round have dropped with no Canadian teams left but so far over the air CBC is averaging about 1.5 million a game and cable TSN over 750,000 so far. And CBC has been badly hurt not only because of no Canadian teams in Round 2 but no Saturday night hockey the last two weeks – the traditional slot for Hockey Night in Canada. They’ll easily top 2 million for this Saturday night’s Game 7 between the Rangers and Caps. I wish I could give you a number for the NBA playoffs but have not been able to find any. One source told me some games have not even hit six figures and the overall average is below 200,000 and hence the NBA and their TV partners up here are trying to keep them under wraps. 

      • JakeFrankie

        Sorry to break it too you, But this site is for TV ratings in the United States. NBA has a huge edge always will over the NHL in the United States. NBA is huge in Europe, NBA is gigantic in China. But again it doesn’t matter this site is for American tv ratings. 

        When was the last time a Stanley Cup outdrew a NBA Finals series? Never

        • Travelpat

          That’s true JakeFrankie – no argument from me on international ratings being greater for the NBA. Not surprising with much of the world not having cold winters or rinks to be able to play hockey whereas basketball like soccer is played almost everywhere.

          I like  basketball. Heck it was invented by a Canadian with the first NBA game ever played being in this country at Maple Leaf Gardens between the New York Knickerbockers and Toronto Huskies. How many Americans know that useless piece of triva. (Note to NBA – Please allow a change of our NBA team’s name to Huskies instead of the awful Raptors name you stuck us with because Jurassic Park was popular when we got our NBA team. But I digress – lol).

          And yes I know that this is an American sports media site. I just wanted to point out that the ‘home’ market for both leagues includes Canada and by at least including the ratings for both countries I think makes the type of comparison this article does – one that is more apples to apples.  Even moreso if there was a count on Americans who watch CBC hockey coverage and all of us up here who sometimes will watch NBC’s coverage.

          Even having said all that – we do agree – the NBA is the bigger ‘apple’ and likely always will be.

        • http://twitter.com/fdes2r Alex

           Are you serious? NBA is huge in Europe? No. That’s not the case. Barely no one cares about the NBA in France, Germany, UK, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden and many more countries. Basketball is far behind Soccer, Formula 1, Rugby (France and UK), Tennis, Cycling or even Cricket (UK).

          I’ll give you an example: in France, the NBA averages at best 150,000 viewers (when Tony Parker plays). Most of the time it’s below 100,000 total viewers. It’s hundred of times less than an average soccer or rugby game or F1 race.

          Only European countries where basketball is big are Spain, Greece, former Yougoslavia countries, Turkey and the Baltic states. Even in those countries, they care much more about teams like Panathinaikos, Zalgris or Partizan rather than the Lakers or Celtics.

          • Johnson Uche

            yes the NBA is the most popular American sport in the WORLD

            yes it is big in Europe, bigger in china, the 2nd fastest growing sport in Canada, and is close to replacing cricket in India

            google if you dont believe me

            The NHL and MLb need to worry about the MLS rather than the NBA

            The NBA is growing at an absurd rate

          • http://twitter.com/fdes2r Alex

            I don’t need to google. I live in Europe and spent years of my life in the Middle East. The NBA is nowhere near as popular as you think it is. Not in Europe. Not in India. Not in China. Not in the Rest of the World.

            Go ask anyone in the streets of Delhi, Hanoi, Algiers, Paris or Dublin. Ask them if they know any famous NBA player. Maybe (and that’s a big maybe) they’ll answer you Micheal Jordan. Ask them who is James LeBron or Kobe Bryant? Not even 2% will give you the correct answer. And those who know are probably not even NBA fans. They just heard the names in Hollywood movies or American tv shows.

            I’ll give half a point for saying that basket is the most popular AMERICAN sport in the world because it’s true. Even though Baseball is pretty popular in Japan and some Hispanic countries (Cuba, Venezuela,…).

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Johnson-Uche/616303965 Johnson Uche

            OK here are some links

            The NBA by far is the most popular amerian sports league in the world. And NBA
            Players are by far the most popular well known american athletes in the world
            next to Tiger Woods, and Michael Phelps. More people around the world know who
            Brian Scalbrine is over Aaron Rodgers ad Adrian PetersonBasketball is
            the fastest growing sport in several countries which include the UK, Canada, and
            India. Basketball as a whole the 2nd most popular sport in the world, and is
            gaining on soccer big time( read eurosport magazine like i do)http://edition.cnn.com/2010/SPORT/fo…rld/index.htmlhttp://www.forbes.com/sites/aliciaje…nd-popularity/http://www.tucsonsentinel.com/sports…610_nba_india/http://www.nba.com/raptors/news/cana…ll_010909.htmlThe
            NBA is only gtting bigger, and not just the NBA, but basketball as a whole

  • guest

    oh frankie, you sound a little bitter

    • JakeFrankie

      Not bitter at lol, Facts are Facts. NHL Playoffs have never out-drawn the NBA Playoffs and NBA’s worst NBA Finals ratings destroy NHL’s best Stanley Cup tv ratings. I just find articles like these pathetic and laughable. NHL is not on the NBA’s level never will be. NHL has good local markets in Boston,Philly and Detroit with good loyal fan bases. But articles like this even from 1994 are just foolish. 

  • Rip Ripperton

    This article is a pretty absurd. The nba will likely experience its 2nd strongest postseason of the past 10 years, in terms of ratings. I will agree that the nhl has been seeing some nice momentum through the first 2 rounds of the playoffs.

  • Quadnewt

    Great article. I read this site every day and you do a fantastic job of presenting the facts. Keep up the nice work!

  • Bessilver

    The mere notion, implication that the NHL is even remotely competitive against the NBA is absolutely absurd.  In the early rounds of the playoffs, the NBA does 4X the numbers of NHL.  As we progress through the playoffs, the ratings gap, viewership between the two widens.  Let’s take last week for instance, an NBA pre-game show on TNT outdrew Round 2 of Stanley Cup playoffs.  A pre game show outdueling an actual 2nd round playoff game!!?

    Its almost a slap in the face to the NBA comparing the two.

    • Paulsen

      The article stresses (repeatedly) that the NHL has not caught up to the NBA and, in fact, will not catch up to the NBA. I do not see the problem here.

      • Bessilver

        My apologies Paulsen.  I responded to the title of ‘Why the NHL is Hot, and the NBA is Not (Again)’ and read some of the comments below, and got carried away.  lol


  • Mr.Quincy Magoo

    Not ever going to claim that the NHL gets higher national ratings then the NBA, but as mentioned in certain local markets such as Boston the NHL draws better ratings in the finals. 

     Consider last years Boston Bruins winning the Stanley Cup outdrew the Boston Celtics (2008) NBA championship in the Boston market. If you don’t believe me Mr.Paulsen will most likely  be more then willing to provide the numbers. 

     The reason why the Knicks outdraw the Rangers in the NYC market is the fact a majority of African-American’s and Hispanics (Notice I didn’t say all) don’t like hockey. The same way a majority of African American’s don’t like the Winter Olympics.  So it’s no surprise that in cites where you have a large % of African American’s and Hispanics Basketball outdraws the NHL. 

    • Minority American

      It’s because there’s hardly any African Americans or Hispanics in those sports. We’re not going to sit down and watch those sports (hockey, golf, nascar, etc.) because those same fans hate bash and don’t watch our sports either (basketball, football, etc.) It’s funny how you neglect to mention Native Americans like they don’t even count.

  • anomyous

    “The NHL is much more competitive on a local level. In Boston, for example, the Bruins (4.7) outrated the Celtics (3.24^) during the regular season, and last year’s Bruins/Canucks Stanley Cup Final averaged a higher rating than the Celtics/Lakers NBA Finals a year earlier (28.1 to 25.0).”

    That is true. But in the 2010-11 regular season, the numbers were reversed. The Celtics often beat the Bruins in head to head matchups until the Bruins Stanley Cup run last year.

  • regular_man

    The NHL is much more competitive on a local level. In Boston, for example, the Bruins (4.7) outrated the Celtics (3.24^) during the regular season, and last year’s Bruins/Canucks Stanley Cup Final averaged a higher rating than the Celtics/Lakers NBA Finals a year earlier (28.1 to 25.0).

    This is true. However in the 2010-11 regular season, the numbers were reversed. The Celtics often beat the Bruins in head to head matchups until the Bruins Cup run last spring.

  • Timtom22

    As a fan of both sports, I must say the Stanley Cup playoffs have been much more exciting than the NBA playoffs.

  • Johnson Uche

    what a joke
    The NHL cant even touch the NBA in America let alone the WORLD

  • Nate Johnson

    Paulsen…. You called it!!! On your sentence before the Final one you said “Then again, if the NHL gets a Rangers/Kings dream series in the Stanley
    Cup Final and the Spurs make it back to the NBA Finals, it could be time
    for another SI cover story” and guess whats on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week?