The NHL angered its fanbase during the lengthy lockout that lasted from September to January and eliminated 625 games from the 2013 schedule, but if you look at the impressive television ratings and attendance numbers from this shortened season, it appears that the fans have come back to the game in full force.
This isn't surprising since fans were quick to help the game recover following the 2004-05 lockout by attending games and watching on television in high numbers.
The NHL knew it would take a little while to bounce back after putting its fans through a third lockout since 1990, but it's hard to imagine the league thinking that the results post-work stoppage would be this positive.
According to ESPN, 26 of the 30 NHL teams had an average attendance of 90 percent or more this year, with 21 teams playing to 97 percent capacity or better.
More than half of the league (16 teams) averaged a sellout crowd at each home game. These numbers are phenomenal given the frustration displayed by hockey fans throughout the work stoppage.
Here's how this season's attendance figures compare with last year (per ESPN):
|NHL Attendance Comparisons||2011-12||2012-13|
|Teams Above 90% Avg. Attendance||21||26|
|Teams Above 97% Avg. Attendance||20||21|
For a gate-driven league that relies so much on ticket revenue, the fans' willingness to return to NHL arenas and support their teams has been a welcomed sight for the league.
Television ratings, specifically for the league's national broadcast partner (in the United States) NBC Sports, were fantastic during the regular season. Here is some more information on this year's ratings via an NBC press release (h/t TVbytheNumbers):
More viewers watched the NHL regular season on NBC Sports Network this year than in any previous year since the channel began televising games in 2005-06. The 2013 NHL regular season on NBC Sports Network was also the most-watched season on cable in nearly two decades, and up 18 percent vs. last year.
Final NHL regular-season viewership on NBC won’t be available until Thursday, but this season, excluding the Winter Classic, is expected to be the most-watched on the network since 2005-06, when NBC Sports regained rights to broadcast NHL games. Through 13 games, regular-season viewership on NBC is up 15 percent this year, excluding the Winter Classic, which was not played this season.
In addition to NBC, regional networks including NESN (Boston Bruins) and CSN Chicago (Chicago Blackhawks) set new highs for regular season ratings. The Pittsburgh Penguins and ROOT Sports also announced record ratings:
Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins
This year #Pens broadcasts garnered the highest avg. RSN ratings for any US MLB, NBA or NHL team since '02: http://t.co/HOaj4e6pnn #bestfans4/30/2013, 9:02:15 PM
The question that remains: is the 48-game schedule, in addition to the excitement of hockey returning after the lockout the main reason for these ratings and attendance numbers, or is the strength of the game really improving?
The answer to these questions probably won't be answered until the end of next season, but this year's record ratings and improving attendance numbers are a good indication of the league's growing popularity and the fans' willingness to devote time and money to the NHL.
The best way to win back fans is to give them an exciting product to enjoy. The league was fortunate to accomplish this by having two prominent teams (Blackhawks and Penguins) grab national headlines and help the NHL earn some attention among the mainstream media.
The Blackhawks' record-setting 24-game point streak to start the season was one of the best stories in sports early in the year and helped put the league back on the map with a large market team that has lots of star power.
The Penguins also went on a remarkable run, winning 15 straight games in the month of March, which tied the second-longest win streak in NHL history.
The success of teams in traditional hockey markets has also contributed to the NHL winning back fans. For the first time since 1995-96, all of the Original Six teams made the playoffs. These are the franchises who drive the league's popularity and financial success (per Forbes, the six most profitable teams in 2011-12 were the Original Six teams).
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who are arguably the league's most popular team, are in the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04. The Montreal Canadiens, who complete a last-to-first turnaround in the Northeast Division, are back among the league's elite. When these teams are playing well, interest in the league increases and many of its rivalries are also stronger (especially Canadiens vs. Bruins).
Teams earning a playoff spot this season that didn't last year has also helped the league win back fans in several markets, specifically in Minnesota and Long Island where Wild and Islanders fans have waited several years to watch their team take part in postseason action.
The thrilling hockey that players such as John Tavares (NYI), Sidney Crosby (PIT), Alexander Ovechkin (WSH) and Patrick Kane (CHI) provided on a nightly basis also played a part in helping fans come back to the game. We expected some sloppy play this season because of the shortened training camps and no preseason games, but to their credit, the players gave fans plenty of must-see hockey to watch.
High-scoring games, like the one in the video below between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, reminded sports fans why they love NHL action.
Off the ice, the NHL also did its best to win back fans by making its GameCenter Live service available at a reduced price of $50 for the entire regular season, which was great for fans who haven't experienced this service before or don't buy it because of the price (which is over $100 in a normal year). Since this year's schedule featured only in-conference games due to the lockout, the best way for fans in the East to watch teams out West (and vice-versa) was to subscribe to GameCenter Live for out-of-market games.
As soon as the lockout ended, the PR departments of teams began to work on ways to persuade fans to buy tickets and support the league again. These ideas included opening more practices and scrimmages to the public, offering concession discounts and running other promotions. As this year's attendance numbers would suggest, these methods been successful in getting fans back into the arena.
It's great to see hockey fans doing their best to support the league's teams after a difficult lockout by purchasing tickets and watching games on television. Unfortunately, this kind of support is only going to make the owners' decision to lock out the players in the future even easier. They knew that the fans would come back this season after the work stoppage and continue to use their hard-earned money to buy tickets, merchandise, and other things.
There are still fans who have yet to forgive the NHL and NHLPA for not playing a full season in 2012-13 and wasting time during labor negotiation meetings that produced very little progress in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
However, it's clear that the NHL has won the majority of its fans back after the lockout. With so many teams enjoying better attendance and television ratings compared last season, the league's future is very bright.
Just a few months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine we would come to this conclusion on May 1. But like they have so many times in the past, the fans' love for this great sport has helped the NHL survive a lockout, bounce back even stronger than it was before and set the foundation for a future full of promise.