In less than a week, the Stanley Cup Finals will begin, and many on the NHL staff are bracing themselves for what could be a television ratings disaster.
Whichever team wins tonight's game is irrelevant to the fact that the Stanley Cup Finals will only feature one American hockey club. The last time a club from the United States faced off against a Canadian club, the ratings were the worst the NHL has ever posted.
Many fans are probably thinking that a finals appearance from the Bruins would be the best outcome for the NHL, and while it would almost certainly be more beneficial for television ratings, you have to question whether or not it would be better for the NHL on a long-term basis.
Six years ago, after the NHL emerged from the worst work stoppage in the league's history, the league had to more or less totally rebuild its casual fan base. Flash-forward to the present, and they have successfully established and re-established popular markets in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington to draw the eye of the casual fan.
Now, I see the NHL in a similar position. After five years, they have the eyes of the casual fan back on the NHL, and they've come to the point where they need to throw new teams into the mix with those that are already established.
The fact of the matter is that the NHL can't just rely on seven teams to carry it every year, because those seven teams and the NHL's star players wont always be there. They just signed a contract that will guarantee television coverage for the next decade, and the first portion of that should be spent trying to build up all of the league's fan bases in order to make the league stronger by the time the television contract expires.
Many naysayers will point to the terrible ratings of the '06-'07 Finals to suggest that a Sunbelt team vs. a Canadian team just isn't good for business. However, the reality is that a Lightning vs. Canucks final would be very different from the Ducks vs. Senators final of 2007.
First and foremost, the league was just recovering from the lockout. Ratings were down across the board, and the NHL's secondary network, Versus, was only available to about 60 million American households (Versus broadcasted the first two games of the final).
Now, Versus is available to nearly 80 million American households, and the NHL is setting records. The present day NHL is averaging more viewers in the Eastern Conference Finals on Versus than the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals on Versus and NBC.
Secondly, neither team featured in the 2007 Finals had what would be considered a premier player. While Chris Pronger and Jason Spezza are excellent hockey players, it would be hard to compare their popularity to Steven Stamkos, Ryan Kesler (an American, mind you) or the Sedin twins. The NHL could certainly capitalize on promoting Steven Stamkos and Ryan Kesler to the casual American viewer.
It can also be noted that the American club, which will carry the majority of the American ratings, was located in the Western Conference, whereas if Tampa Bay were to advance to the finals, the American club would be from the Eastern Conference. It's not exactly a secret that the NHL heavily favors the Eastern Conference in marketing, and that could be a big difference between the '07 finals and the 2011 finals.
Another argument that could be made is that Tampa Bay already won a cup, and immediately lost their popularity. While this is somewhat true, it should be noted that the almost all NHL clubs lost some popularity following the lockout, and Tampa Bay almost immediately fell back into mediocre performances following their cup win. The fact of the matter is that with or without a cup appearance, Bruins fans will be back next season, while Lightning fans may bolt.
A Lightning vs. Canucks Stanley Cup Final may hurt the league in the present, but when considering the future, it will help draw casual fans to even more teams, it will strengthen the fan bases of both teams involved, and it will increase the popularity of names like Stamkos and Kesler to the casual fan.