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