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NHL’s Top Star Lands First Stanley Cup Final. Will Anyone Watch?

June 4th, 2024

Like just about 98% of everything else in the known universe, the 2024 Stanley Cup Final is a win some, lose some proposition. On the one hand, the NHL finally has the opportunity to showcase the human highlight reel that is Connor McDavid, who, alongside Leon Draisaitl, powers a belief-beggaring Edmonton Oilers offense. On the other, even with McDavid suiting up for his first crack at Lord Stanley’s beer stein, ABC’s coverage isn’t likely to draw a TV audience commensurate with the generational talent that’ll be on display.

Bad news first. While the NHL has been on a torrid ratings tear—to date, postseason deliveries on the ESPN networks are up 20% year-over-year—that momentum is about to zoom headlong into the stark reality of marketplace mathematics. If ABC couldn’t catch a break from the New York area (Florida’s undoing of the Rangers cast a pall over much of the market’s 7.6 million TV homes), it took another hit when the Oilers pummeled their way past the Dallas Stars.

It doesn’t happen all that often, but whenever a Canadian team punches its ticket to the Final, the subsequent absence of a crucial hometown DMA is readily apparent in the Nielsen data. In 2021, the five-game Montreal Canadiens-Tampa Bay Lightning series averaged just shy of 2.5 million viewers per game across NBC’s various broadcast, cable and digital platforms. Our neighbors to the north also played a part in the least-watched Final on record, as 2007’s five-game Anaheim Ducks-Ottawa Senators set averaged just 1.74 million viewers on the NBC flagship and the now-defunct cabler Versus.

Still, not all is lost. If a short series featuring a Canadian club is more or less box-office poison, a Final that’s been pushed to the brink will scare up crowd regardless of local market considerations. In 2011, when Boston repped the Original Six in a seventh frame against Vancouver, 8.54 million viewers watched the action unfold on NBC. The Bruins’ 4-0 victory remains the fifth-biggest TV draw in NHL history, and trails only Game 7 of St. Louis-Boston in 2019 (8.72 million) as the league’s top outing during the modern Nielsen era.

If there’s only so much the league’s TV partners can do when faced with a single-market Final, TNT Sports and ABC/ESPN did their level best to bolster the Oilers’ national profile throughout the regular season. Edmonton appeared on national TV no fewer than 11 times during the 2023-24 campaign, a slate that includes a Saturday afternoon date on over-the-air ABC. (By comparison, the megamarket Rangers were featured in 12 national games, although six of these were big-reach ABC productions.)

The Stars’ ouster may be rough on ABC’s deliveries as well, as Dallas-Ft. Worth represents the nation’s fifth-largest media market. Home to 3.13 million TV households, the DFW DMA accounts for 2.5% of all would-be viewers in the U.S. Of course, no cluster of consumer nodes can hold a candle to New York; add the 1.74 million TV homes Miami brings to the table to the no-longer-in play Dallas headcount and you’re still only looking at 65% of Gotham’s reach. In fact, the 2.73 million-household deficit is almost a perfect match for the No. 7 Atlanta market, a place 2.74 million TV-watchers call home.

If the Panthers-Oilers matchup may not be ideal from a pure ratings standpoint, ABC can still expect to put up much stronger numbers than the year-ago Final. TNT/TBS/truTV’s coverage of the short Panthers-Golden Knights series scared up the third-lowest deliveries on the books, as cable’s built-in reach shortfall ensured an unspectacular TV turnout. ABC’s signals reach approximately 12.5 million more homes than do the TNT Sports channels, and that edge alone should help Disney refresh this year’s deliveries.

A six-game series likely comes within shooting distance of the 2022 Final, which averaged 4.6 million viewers in the very first year of the NHL’s return to ABC. And while Game 7s are hard to come by—before the 2019 capper averaged a 38-year-high 8.72 million viewers, the last time a seventh broadcast was required was back in 2011—the novelty alone should be enough to help ABC draw at least 8 million fans if there’s still hockey to be played on Mon., June 24.

Seven games should allow ABC to skate off with somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million in ad revenue, which isn’t a bad couple days’ work considering the network also will be airing the NBA Finals on its non-hockey nights. For its part, the NHL is simply elated to see McDavid step into the limelight; if mere TV ratings were the league’s primary concern, it would not have been in bed with the undersized OLN/Versus/NBCSN for 16 seasons, nor would it have agreed to a seven-year, $1.6 billion deal with TNT Sports’ precursor Turner that will see the Final return to basic-cable in 2025 and 2027. 

The Panthers opened as -125 favorites to win the Cup, with Vegas books favoring a six-game set. The puck drops on ABC Sat., June 8, at 8 p.m. EDT.

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