Of the four major professional sports in the United States, ice hockey is the most unique insofar as it merges the skills of several endeavors, including the finesse of figure skating; the eye-hand coordination of golfing; and the rough & tumble world of professional football. And starting the week of April 10th, hockey fans will get to see the greatest (multi-talented) hockey players in the world battle it out for Lord Stanley’s Cup in the 91st annual National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs.
The NHL schedule is a mirror image of the National Basketball League. Thirty teams battle over the course of a grueling 82-game regular season (from October to mid-April) to see which sixteen teams qualify for the playoffs, which are structured in precisely the same fashion: four rounds of best-of-seven games, leading to a championship team that needs to play anywhere from sixteen to twenty-eight playoff games. Last year’s Stanley Cup Champion (the Pittsburgh Penguins) played twenty-four playoff games to assume the title – that’s almost one-third of an entire season of regular games! And last year, ad-supported cable delivered nearly 80% of all NHL gross impressions, having telecast over 70 playoff games:
After a 3-year rise in NHL Playoff ratings and shares, last season’s Playoffs were off ~20% due in large measure to the participating playoff teams that faced off in 2016. For example, two years ago, teams from two of the largest television markets (i.e., the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks) participated in 42 playoffs games. Last year – only 12. And given the concentrated viewing of hockey in the northern markets, the loss of 30 games from the New York and Chicago DMAs had a significant impact on overall national viewing averages:
The NHL playoff format is also a very generous one, allowing 16 out of 30 pro teams to participate in post-season play. With all of these playoff hockey games on cable, you might think that viewers would experience something equivalent to “fan fatigue”. But the fact of the matter is that – as the playoffs unfold – and teams advance from one round to the next, fan anticipation grows and along with it higher and higher U.S. ratings. The combined ratings and shares for NBCSN and CNBC more than quadrupled from the First Round to the Stanley Cup Finals:
Along with a large, highly engaged audience, viewing to the NHL playoffs is decidedly upscale. For example, homes with an annual income of $175,000 – $199,999 had an average rating of 1.64 – nearly 70% higher than the average rating across all U.S. TV homes:
In the end, however, the most compelling NHL playoff ratings story occurs within the DMAs of hometown participating teams. Below is a selection of several games carried on NBCSN. As just one example, the Tampa Bay Lightning visited the (eventual Stanley Cup Champion) Pittsburg Penguins in a Game 7 Eastern Conference Final on May 26th. The strong U.S. national rating of 2.48 was eclipsed nearly 7-fold in the Lighting’s home DMA of Tampa Bay, and nearly 16-fold in the Penguins home DMA of Pittsburg:
Local Cable Advertising Demand
NHL Playoff games have attracted very strong local cable advertising demand. Over the past two years (2015 & 2016), 340 Viamedia clients ordered +5,100 :30-second spots across 49 markets (two-thirds of Viamedia’s national footprint.) That comes to over 7 spots per client (per playoff year.) And when we confine our analysis to the 31 markets that exhibited advertising over the past two playoff seasons, we find a growth rate of 2-3% driven primarily by an increase in :30-second units purchased by local advertisers.
Source: Viamedia internal analysis of B.I.G.SM database. Copyright © 2017 by Viamedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In terms of local cable advertising categories, the NHL Playoffs look a lot like most major sporting events, with automotive capturing 50% of all investments – about 20 share points higher than what we normally see for this category company-wide. Other categories with above average shares: Hardware & Home Improvement (9%); Retail & Department Stores (8%); Attorneys & Professional Services (5%); and, Appliances and Home Electronics (4%.) Collectively, these four categories capture a little over one-quarter of all investments in NHL Hockey – a figure that is 12 share points higher than company-wide:
Speed, Skill & Toughness
The NHL has morphed from a league comprised entirely of Canadians, to a worldwide consortium of the greatest hockey players on the planet. What has changed most is the utter speed of the game combined with stick skills and lightning fast reflexes. The players are also bigger, and while they don’t drop their gloves and sticks quite as much as they used to, you won’t often see professional hockey players shying away from fisticuffs. And that pretty much defines today’s game: high speed; unparalleled skills; and sheer toughness – three elements that will keep this blogger (and millions of others) glued to the TV set when the 91st Stanley Cup playoffs commence in mid-April.
Written by Jonathan Sims
VP of Media Research, Viamedia