2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did Early Round Violence Increase Interest?
The first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs featured quite a bit of violence.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers combined for about 300 penalty minutes and averaged a major penalty per two games. The San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues combined for nearly 150 penalty minutes in Game 2 alone.
In all these playoffs, there have been 12 suspensions totaling 44 games. Eight of those suspensions were in the first round of the playoffs, averaging five games a piece. Even outside of Raffi Torres' 25-game sentence, four transgressions were deemed heinous enough to receive more than one game penalties.
And that does not even count the two first-round match penalties.
Interestingly enough, total penalty minutes are down by over a minute per game compared to the 2011 playoffs. But there have already been 14 more major penalties, two more match penalties and eight more suspensions totaling 36 more games.
Television ratings have also been up overall in this year's playoffs. Are those two things related?
One of the first things they teach you in science is that you cannot assign a cause-effect relationship to a variable if there is more than one introduced into an equation. Thus, we must isolate all the variables that distinguish this year from last and may be contributing to the higher viewing audience.
For instance, there has been a decrease in scoring that would actually have helped reduce the television audience in a nation that clamors for the glory of scoring over the staple of defence like a kid prefers ice cream to spinach. But before we decide that proves violence is spurring ratings, we need to look at five other factors contributing to increased viewership...
If you will excuse the pun, the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs featured new blood as well as violence.
The St. Louis Blues made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, when they were swept by the Vancouver Canucks. By Game 2 of their series with the San Jose Sharks, they had more playoff wins than they had in the previous seven seasons since the lockout.
The Florida Panthers had not been to the postseason in a decade. They played the New Jersey Devils, who like the Ottawa Senators had missed the playoffs the previous season.
But the reality is that teams that consistently miss the playoffs in a league where over half make it every year dwell in relative obscurity. Those in non-traditional hockey markets—or almost any team in a party city like Miami—could be used by the witness protection program.
Fans wait to see what happens in the second round before tuning in. Locally obscure Florida and Ottawa, a team of low interest to most Americans, predictably did not advance. Meanwhile, St. Louis—a hockey city for over 40 years located right in the heart of the United States—did.
More importantly, teams everyone is sick of seeing fell off early.
The Detroit Red Wings, the NHL's most successful franchise over the past 15 seasons, was out on April 20. The San Jose Sharks, the second-most successful since the lockout (unless you want a champion!) fell to St. Louis the next day. The 2011 Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks fell the next day and the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins three days later.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Coyotes won their first playoff series ever. The Blues and Los Angeles Kings each won their first in at least a decade. The Devils got their first win since 2007, and the New York Rangers their first since beating the Devils in 2008. Nashville advanced for just the second time ever.
Big Market Teams Advance
The 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs were fortunate enough to have most of their top-10 American markets represented.
The Original-Six team from the largest American market, the New York Rangers, play 20 games. The second-largest market's Los Angeles Kings are still playing.
While the NHL did lose the Chicago Blackhawks early, they made the playoffs. Same holds true for the San Jose Sharks in the large Bay Area market. The Phoenix Coyotes actually drew interest from their fans.
In fact, the only top-10 NHL market not represented was Dallas. Five of the other nine played past the first round, and three were among the last four teams standing.
The only low interest U.S. markets represented were Miami (13th-largest American market in the NHL, but near the bottom in hockey viewership) and Nashville (17th among 23 American teams).
Division rivalries do not just increase violence between teams, but interest among fans. The following rivals matched up against each other in some round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs:
1. Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Nashville Predators-Detroit Red Wings
3. New Jersey Devils-Flyers
4. Los Angeles Kings-Phoenix Coyotes
5. Devils-New York Rangers
Some of the other series had rivalry implications: St. Louis had lost to San Jose the two previous times they had matched up in the playoffs, had residual resentment over Joe Thornton's hit that derailed David Perron's 2010-11 season and the Sharks' filching of waiver claim Kyle Wellwood in February of 2011. L.A. had lost to Vancouver in the first round of the 2010 playoffs.
Without having played a single game of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, this year's tournament already has more overtime games than 2011.
Thus far, there has been a triple-overtime game, three double-overtime games and 19 more that went past regulation. In last year's playoffs, there were 17 single-OT games and five that went to double-OT. Not a single game went beyond that.
The parity is obviously working, and that has led to increased ratings for the NHL almost every playoffs since the lockout.
The increased exposure of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs will naturally result in higher ratings.
After the transition of the Versus Network to NBC Sports Channel, the parent company is marketing the games more aggressively. More people know where the channel is on their cable or satellite package, and more people have those channels and the NHL Network to drum up interest in the first place.
Based on these five factors and the way many Americans will tune into Olympic hockey that is virtually devoid of violence, it would seem there is little chance said violence deserves credit for increased viewership. If hockey wants to attract new fans, cheap shots and fights are an uphill road to climb.