NHL: Games ready to return; will fans come back, too?

2013-01-16T00:00:00Z NHL: Games ready to return; will fans come back, too?The Associated Press The Associated Press
January 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

NEW YORK - Hockey fans will click their bitterness or forgiveness over the NHL lockout by whether they tune into the games on TV.

Then again, if the shortened season ends with, say, a Rangers-Red Wings final, even the most aggrieved of them might have a hard time staying away.

Television viewership bounced back eventually after the last lockout, one that wiped out an entire season. So there's certainly precedent that the sport's ratings can weather the lost games and perceived greed of a work stoppage.

"Hope the passion for hockey bubbles back to the surface very quickly," NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said Tuesday. "The hockey fan is a passionate group, and we're cautiously optimistic they'll come back. It won't be instant. You've got to regain the trust, regain the passion."

History also shows playoff matchups can swing momentum in either direction.

When the first two Stanley Cup finals after the lockout were Carolina-Edmonton and Anaheim-Ottawa, viewership cratered. Then the league hit a favorable stretch of large-market, big-name teams, with series that lasted at least six games, and ratings spiked.

While still well below viewership for the NBA and Major League Baseball, hockey's TV audiences in recent years were quite healthy, in many cases matching or exceeding pre-lockout levels in an era of ever-increasing entertainment options. Now, for the second time in less than a decade, the NHL must make that climb back.

According to Nielsen, non-cable regular-season games averaged 1.7 million viewers during the 2003-04 season, the last before the previous lockout. Once hockey returned, the average was 1.4 million in 2005-06. By last season, that number had rebounded to 1.6 million.

When this year's lockout-shortened slate opens Saturday, NBC will show the Los Angeles Kings raising their championship banner, then regional coverage of Blackhawks-Kings or Penguins-Flyers. The network plans to show the most hockey since it started televising the league after the last lockout, with 14 regular-season windows for games.

Including cable partner NBC Sports Network, the NBC Sports Group will air 70 regular-season games.

The payoff to the company's commitment to the sport will hinge on whether fans flock back - and if so, how quickly. Appealing playoff matchups would help in that regard.

"We know going into this that an all-Canadian Stanley Cup final would be different than a Boston Bruins-Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup final," Flood said. "That's just the basics of market size. … You're only as good as the matchups and the quality of play on the ice."

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