NHL Rebounds: How the NHL Has Overcome the Lockout to Achieve Record TV Ratings

Jed HughesCorrespondent IMay 2, 2012

January 2, 2012 Winter Classic—New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers.
January 2, 2012 Winter Classic—New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For years, the National Hockey League has struggled to overcome the residual effects of the 2004-05 lockout season.  However, this year there is substantial buzz about the NHL, which has been buoyed by its 10-year, $2 billion TV contract with NBC, increased sponsorship revenue and improved communications through the use of social media, including videos featuring NHL VP Brendan Shanahan explaining player suspensions.

The league has also benefited from the HBO series, 24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, which won The Dick Schaap Writing Award at the Sports Emmy's this week. The series spurred high ratings of the outdoor contest between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers

Additionally, the emergence of exciting new players and an unpredictable first round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has helped the league increase its exposure to wider audiences.

First round NHL playoff games on NBC, the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), and CNBC averaged 929,000 viewers—“the most-watched first round ever," according to NBC executives. The Eastern Conference Game 7 matchup between the Washington Capitals and the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins on April 25 attracted 1.32 million viewers, making it the most-watched opening-round game on cable in 12 years. Furthermore, Game 3 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers series drew the best TV ratings since 2002.

And it doesn't stop there. The New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators Game 7 matchup registered a 5.74 Nielsen rating (424,000 households), making it the most-watched game on MSG Network since Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals.  In addition, Game 7 between the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers posted a 1.70 Nielson rating, the highest for New Jersey on MSG+ since Game 6 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals.  Remarkably, these ratings successes were achieved while competing with the opening round of the highly anticipated 2012 NFL draft.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins speaks with Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on Apr
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Much of the ratings bonanza can be ascribed to the return of the Rangers to postseason relevance, and the escalation of heated rivalries, including “The Battle of Pennsylvania” between the Penguins and Flyers.  However, credit belongs also to the NHL’s Fan Development strategy aimed at increasing fan engagement.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has led the charge in redeveloping marketing efforts to “ramp up fan enthusiasm.”  The most successful tactic has been the addition of the NHL Winter Classic, which generates widespread excitement about the sport outside of the core hockey media and fans. 

Venues such as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, PNC Park in Pittsburgh and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia have added to the intrigue of the outdoor game.  The 2009 Winter Classic between the Blackhawks and Red Wings at Wrigley Field drew a 2.9 rating, the highest for a regular-season game since 1975.  Next year, Detroit will host the Toronto Maple Leafs at "The Big House," Michigan Stadium, which holds 115,000 fans, in Ann Arbor, MI.

Meanwhile, the NHL has been aggressively building one-to-one relationships with fans by requesting they solicit information about their favorite teams and then following up with team-specific marketing.  This strategy has helped rejuvenate engagement all season long.  Further, the league vastly improved its website, one of the best in all of sports, and marketed its officially-licensed gear better.

The successes of two New York market teams have certainly helped generate interest in the media capital of the country.  Further, the league has benefited from the emergence of young stars such as Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, a Vezina Trophy candidate; Claude Giroux of the Flyers, who tallied six goals and eight assists in the first six games of the playoffs; Chris Kreider of the Rangers, who left the campus of Boston College and scored two game-winning goals in his first six NHL games; and Adam Henrique of the Devils, who scored the series-ending overtime goal for the Devils against Florida

Lastly, 2012 marks the first time that a Canadian team has not advanced to the second round of the playoffs since 1996.  However, having big-market teams from New York, L.A., Philadelphia and Washington should help offset the elimination of the Canucks and other Canadian teams and the early departures of the Penguins, Red Wings and the reigning Stanley Cup champion Bruins

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice.  Among his high-profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).  Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.