Like all broadcast television, the NHL has suffered many ups and downs in the ratings. It’s become pretty common to expect games to pull in lower ratings each year but it does leave advertisers uneasy. Looking at the NFL viewership drop, it’s easy to just claim that the organizations aren’t doing enough to draw in viewers. However, there’s been a genuine fluctuation for the past few years that reflect the changing landscape of television.
A big part of understanding how ratings work is knowing what the Nielsen numbers are. It’s a way to measure the target audience and helps advertisers learn more about the effectiveness of their commercials. The Nielsen ratings generally break down an 18-49 year old audience, which is typically the key demographic for all networks. This is a big reason why a show or game can have a low Nielsen number but still be pulling in the same amount of viewers. A lot of the times it means that people over the age of 49 are watching, and they fall outside of that key general audience.
The easiest numbers to break down are the Stanley Cup game ratings. Many fans are under the impression that the final games have actually been on a rating decline when this year actually saw a slight rise. On average, the six games had a 2.7 ratings in the Nielsen scale with about 4.7 million viewers which is higher than last year’s 2.4 rating and 4 million viewers. A large part of this uptick was the NHL refusing to allow players to participate in the Winter Olympics this year. This included in the final game with a 3.9 rating and 7 million people watching.
Let’s go back to four years earlier in 2013 where the ratings were higher for the NHL. It averaged all-time high in the Nielsen scale with a 3.3 and 5.8 million viewers for the six games. It had stronger performances across the week than 2017 did, and dipped below a 3.0 rating only two nights. In comparison to 2017, there were four nights under a 3.0 rating and half of them were actually under a 2.0. However, analyzing the individual nights is when people are bound to get even more confused.
In 2013, the first NHL finals game pulled in 6.4 million viewers and a 3.9 Nielsen score. Fast forward to game four, where the night nets in 6.5 million viewers but a Nielsen score 0.1 lower than that opening game. It’s a trend happening more in television to see these scores remain lower despite larger audiences. When networks choose when to air their shows at what time, it’s to try and ensure the largest possible Nielsen rating not viewership. It’s definitely not as common as people think, but this does attribute why a lot of people have been noticing the ratings drop on television.
So why exactly is this? The simple fact is that the population has slowly been transitioning to streaming services. For NHL fans, there are just other ways to watch the games outside of just NBC. Whether it’s streaming it on your phone, Hulu live, or even viewing it at a friend’s house. Like other sports, it feels like there are other ways to watch NHL games outside of simply sitting on the couch to watch it.
However, the biggest impact of the NHL and other sports within the United States is securing new viewership. Why do networks cherish Nielsen ratings so much? It’s because they represent how large an audience can grow. When a show or a game starts off with higher numbers within the Nielsen scale, and starts to diminish over time it represents viewers aging outside of the 18-49 range. It’s a bad sign for all networks in general, not just the NFL, NHL, and NBA. If they aren’t securing a large enough swath of new viewers, then it sets an expirations on the live viewing of sports.
While the impact hasn’t been as massive in the Stanley Cup games, they have had a big effect on the regular games. This year’s Winter Classic had an 11% drop in overall viewers and a 13% fall in the Nielsen scale from 2016. However, this isn’t nearly as dramatic compared to the typical weekly games. The March 3 game this year (Maple Leafs vs Capitals) fell 42% in total viewers and 36% in the Nielsen ratings for a pretty impactful loss. This is a pretty aggressive drop from just one year and definitely shows that the NHL is having difficulty getting new viewers to tune into their games.
What does this mean for the longevity of the NHL on prime-time sports? Sadly, these numbers aren’t nearly as bad as the NFL drops in ratings. However, there will always be one key thing working against sports coverage in broadcast channels: scheduling. The games run on for a long-time and take up a huge chunk of programming through a night. It’s why the NHL puts games on Saturday’s, so it doesn’t take away primetime nights for NBC. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty well-known secret that Friday through Sunday is typically is ratings dead zone for television. Those are the nights people are less likely to be watching television and to DVR their shows. Yes, there are probably quite a few people who DVR games, but for most viewers this is unnecessary with so many ways to get live updates for games.
Is there any easy fix for ratings drops? No, the fact is that every network has to deal with the new age of television. If the NHL wants to get more viewers interested, they’re going to have to work on getting more kids playing hockey. All team sports are expensive to play nowadays, but especially hockey since not all schools even have teams. The next few years will be critical for the NHL to try and at least get their ratings to remain steady.