Columnists, Sports

Dropping the Gloves: Hockey is better than it’s ever been, but where are the viewers?

Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres remained No. 2 in NHL viewership ratings this season despite seeing a decline. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The NHL is better than it’s ever been. Hockey is getting better and better every season, and more fun to watch. Every team remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs scored at least 100 points in the regular season.

There are no longer just a handful of star players that come around once in a while. Calder Memorial Trophy winners are no longer just peaking in their first two years of play — they’re staying relevant through long careers.

Speed and agility are valued over power and goal scoring. Talent runs deep through various lines rather than the first-line left wing scoring all the goals. It’s an exciting time for hockey, but the viewership hasn’t changed all that much.

In the post-Lockout era, Stanley Cup Playoff ratings have slightly gone up, but right now they’ve plateaued. And the regular season ratings were actually lower this year than they’ve been in a while.

So the question remains, why isn’t the NHL getting ratings?

The Buffalo Sabres consistently have high ratings, regardless of their position in the standings, which is typically low. This year, the Sabres had a significant decline, but they were even able to remain No. 2 in ratings.

On the other side, the Chicago Blackhawks had a huge decline in ratings this season. The team didn’t qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, and the fans weren’t interested in sticking around to watch the demise.

The Nashville Predators had the highest jump in ratings, which makes sense. After a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, Mike Fisher’s departure and return and now a potential for another playoff run has fans buzzing with energy.

But the fact that three Original Six teams have seen the biggest drop in ratings is a bit off-putting. Cities with teams that are performing better are more likely to have high ratings — but if self-proclaimed “Hockeytown” Detroit has declined so significantly in ratings, who is even watching?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are on top for the second year in a row, not shocking after a repeat Stanley Cup victory. But if they slide in the standings, the ratings might not last.

The Boston Bruins might have the most reliable network. In the first 12 days of the playoffs, NBC released its ratings by city, and both Boston and Providence made it in the top five. Of all the cities to make the top 10, Buffalo was the only city without a team represented in the playoffs.

It’s not shocking that teams doing well have the highest ratings, but overall it’s not matching up. Ratings should be climbing as a whole and they’re just not.

Streaming has become a big part of a game watching experience. Thursday Night Football games were featured for Amazon Prime customers last season. Fox Sports Go and NBC Sports have offered streaming for various events.

You can also find any game to illegally stream fairly easily. You can’t track ratings for streaming services like that, but it still wouldn’t account for that missing viewership. Sure, it might account for some, but streaming has been available for years now and it wouldn’t explain the plateau that the league is seeing right now.

Stanley Cup playoff ratings are good, but any playoff rating is expected to be higher than a regular season game.

The Winter Olympics controversy could be a reason why less people tuned in this year, but once again, it doesn’t explain the plateau. When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the league would not be shutting down for the Olympics, many were confused as to how this would affect the league.

If anything, it just diluted the showing at the Olympics. The core talent of hockey lies in the NHL, so cutting out that main supply of skill affected the depth of rosters on each team. Since the announcement, viewership hasn’t changed all that much.

So where are all the fans?

Maybe they’ve lost interest. Maybe they don’t have cable and just get updates from an app on their phone. Maybe the NHL isn’t reaching out to viewers like they should be?

Whatever the reason, it really is a mystery. The talent in the NHL is better than it’s ever been, but no one seems to be watching.

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One Comment

  1. I am a Buffalo Sabres fan who lives in the New York Metropolitan Area. If I suscribe to one of the NHL viewing services such as Center Ice, I miss seeing all of the games between the Sabres and the Rangers, Islanders, Devils and Flyers. Even those games which are in Buffalo. That amounts to about 20 percent of the Sabres schedule.