Many hockey fans feared that last year’s lockout-shortened NHL season might put a damper on the sport’s growing popularity in the United States. Those fears appear to have been unfounded as hockey viewership is up big this year, but even with that success the NHL is still way behind the NBA in terms of postseason viewership.
Through the first week of NHL postseason play, the league’s narrative has been one of incredible success. A recent NBC press release touts that NHL postseason ratings are way up from last year. Games on the NBC Sports Network averaged 621,000 viewers through the network’s first ten games, up 61% from the first ten postseason games on the network last year, and CNBC’s average 295,000 viewers are up 25% from last year’s comparable games.
But while that sounds impressive – and the growth truly is important – it’s still nothing compared to the NBA.
Through Monday night, the NBA aired eight playoff games on cable networks (three on ESPN and five on TNT). Those eight games averaged 3.5 million viewers, or more than five times the audience tuning in to the typical NHL game on NBCSN. On Saturday, the NBA’s three opening playoff games led all cable programming in viewership, and Sunday’s games ranked as three of the top five most-viewed shows.
Meanwhile, the only NHL game to even register among the top-viewed cable programming was Saturday’s double-overtime thriller between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. The game’s ratings numbers – a 0.3 rating with 850,000 viewers – rank it just behind an afternoon SpongeBob SquarePants episode and a late-night Full House rerun.
The cable numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course. Casual or curious viewers are far more likely to know where to find ESPN or TNT than networks like NBCSN or CNBC. And these numbers don’t reflect viewership of the handful of games broadcast on over-the-air networks (so far, two NBA games on ABC and three NHL games on NBC).
But even with the NHL picking up steam from last year, the reality remains obvious that, despite a lack of exciting storylines in the NBA, hockey poses little threat to the NBA’s dominance in postseason viewership.