When the NHL returned Aug. 1 following a five-month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic, fans at home were digging it.
Hockey viewership across all platforms was up 39 percent from the pre-pandemic regular season, according to NBC Sports, and cable viewing was up 120 percent.
Now that the Lightning are in the Stanley Cup final — and every other sport is in full swing, too — it’s a different story.
Ratings for the first three games of the Lightning-Dallas Stars series are way down across the board, both from last year’s championship between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins, and from the Lightning’s last finals trip in 2015 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Game 1 on NBC on Sept. 19 drew 2.16 million viewers, down 60 percent from last year, and nearly 70 percent from Game 1 in 2015. Monday’s Game 2 on NBCSN drew 1.2 million viewers, down 65 percent from last year, and 82 percent from 2015.
And Wednesday’s Game 3 Lightning win, which gave the team a 2-1 series edge, drew 1.2 million viewers on NBCSN, down 60 percent from 2019 and nearly 70 percent from 2015.
Comparing this year’s finals to 2019 and 2015 is a bit apples-and-oranges, because those series featured the Bruins and Blackhawks, two nationally popular Original Six franchises. Tampa and Dallas are Sun Belt cities with solid hockey histories, but decidedly smaller national followings.
The biggest hurdle for the NHL is timing.
“You’ve got NBA basketball finals going, you’ve got the Rays that are in the thick of the playoffs ... and you also have NFL football,” said Mark Demopoulos, director of programming and research for WFLA-Ch. 8, which aired Game 1 locally, and will air the rest of the games starting Friday. “There’s a lot more competition for the eyeballs at this point in time.”
That could explain why ratings are down locally. In 2015, the first three Lightning-Blackhawks games averaged a rating of more than 15 in the Tampa Bay market, meaning 15 percent of local households with a TV tuned in. This year, the average rating was just over 8.
Even though games are being played in Edmonton, WFLA has still been broadcasting from Amalie Arena. Fans are there, but their presence has been muted from a normal playoff run, when the market would be saturated with local coverage. Still, Demopoulos expects WFLA to see a ratings nudge for its 11 p.m. newscast on the next few game nights.
“There is a much larger flow when the games are on us,” he said. “As a whole, the games will do a higher rating on NBC, because everybody in the market has the ability to get it.”
The news isn’t all bleak. In the Tampa Bay market, Game 3 drew a rating of 8.6, the best of the playoffs and NBC Sports' best local cable rating for any game since 2018. Game 1 also drew a solid 8.5 rating in Tampa Bay, as well as a 6.4 in Dallas — the market’s best-ever for an NHL game on NBC.
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NBC Sports has touted the fact that thanks to the NHL’s return, this year brought NBCSN its most-watched August on record, and it’s on pace for its most-watched September.
“We are really excited this Stanley Cup final is even happening," NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said during a Sept. 18 media call. “It’s just a blast to listen, a blast to watch, and I’m really proud and thankful for all the people that have committed so much to make this such a special Stanley Cup final, one that will never be forgotten.”
Demopoulos said that the deeper the series goes — especially if the Lightning close in on their second Stanley Cup win — the more fans will watch.
“Those games,” he said, “the ratings will just go up exponentially.”