The Philadelphia Flyers made history Friday night becoming the third National Hockey League team to rally from a three-game deficit to win their second-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins.
The NHL is looking to make some history of its own with the Nielsens, as its version of the Final Four begins May 16 with Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Black Hawks on NBC today at 3 p.m., followed by the opening contest of the Eastern Conference finals, matching the Philadelphia Flyers-Montreal Canadiens, on Versus at 7 p.m.
Comcast-owned Versus netted 595,000 average viewers during the first round of the playoffs, the best for the NHL on cable since ESPN/ESPN2 averaged 608,000 in 2001. Through the games of May 12, Versus' second-round presentations (results from Philly completing its historic comeback from a three-goal deficit on Friday night were not available at presstime) scored a 1.0 household rating and 1.05 million viewers, up 25% and 32%, respectively from a 0.8 and 793,000 last year.
Additionally, six NBC telecasts were ahead 4% to a 1.71 million average, while national games on TSN and CBC in Canada, as well as regional sports networks in the U.S. (led by FSN Pittsburgh) and north of the border (RDS with the Canadiens) have rung up significant audience gains.
League officials indicate that if the puck keeps bouncing the right way they could be tracking ratings records back to the year the New York Rangers ended their curse.
"There have been some great storylines and great series with incredible Game 7 action," said NHL COO John Collins during a wide-ranging interview on May 14. "We're looking at the best ratings since 2000 and maybe back to 1994."
The Nielsen upticks should augur well for upcoming rights negotiations: Versus' multiyear pact and NBC's two-year revenue sharing deal both conclude with the 2010-11 season. The current TV partners will get first crack at new deals.
"We hope to sit down with them in late fall. We're eager to see what they come up with," said Collins. Versus and NBC will be part of the same corporate team if the Comcast-NBC Universal joint venture proposal passes regulatory muster.
Meanwhile, ESPN officials have indicated the sports programming giant is interested in returning to the ice. Is there room for two TV lines? "It's too early to speak to that," said Collins, who noted that ESPN America's contract for league telecasts in Europe is co-terminus with the deals of the U.S. national partners.
Asked if there could be a move toward airing more or all of the games in the first two rounds of the playoffs exclusively on a national basis, Collins replied: "We're always talking with our partners about ways to improve our schedule."
Similarly, he sidestepped a query about whether the NHL would consider unbundling its digital streaming rights from its national TV offerings (Versus streaming rights for the games it televises, but has elected not to exploit them on the Internet, while the league said that subscriptions to its out-of-market broadband "GameCenter Live" package have grown 25% this season)
"[Media companies] like to talk about all content rights. We want to work closely with our partners about the best way to drive fans," said Collins.
Digital has played a key role in boosting the NHL's fortune. Collins said the NHL.com has enhanced its video content through a better player, and by presenting more stories, data and information. "Our fans have really been engaged," he said. "They have a voracious appetite for unique content."
Over the first 29 days of the 2010 NHL playoffs, video starts on NHL.com rose 143% over last year, with unique visitors to the site and page views ahead 31% and 49%, respectively. Mobile page views climbed 191%, according to league officials, who reported that April was the most-trafficked month in NHL.com history with more than 17 million uniques.
Collins said the enhanced digital offerings and NHL's strategy to activate fans for its big events, the outdoor Winter Classicand Stanley Cup playoffs, have paid dividends.
"The idea was to get fans to be less concerned with whether their favorite team was still involved in the playoffs. The Stanley Cup playoffs are great and should have appeal to all hockey fans," he said. "I can't speak to other properties, but digital has certainly been additive to our TV ratings."
Collins notes that NHL ratings this postseason have grown across the board: among fans of the four teams that are still in the hunt for the Cup; playoff squads that have been eliminated; sides that didn't make the postseason; and in markets that don't have an NHL team.
As to the league's own linear service, NHL Network now counts nearly 40 million subscribers, more than double its total from this time a year ago. Collins said the league, which has gained better positioning with Comcast and DirecTV, is hopeful that figure will approach the 50 million plateau by the time the 2010-11 season faces off next fall by continuing to upgrade NHL Network from sports tiers to digital basic.
The gains on TV and advanced media platforms have crossed over to Madison Avenue. The league not only weathered the economic downturn of the past couple of years, but made strides on a number of sponsorship and advertising fronts.
"The economic environment is starting to improve now, but the NHL has been making its mark. Those performances speak to that success," said Collins.
The NHL, which is benefiting from Reebok running a global ad campaign featuring Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and the Washington Capital's Alex Ovechkin -- the puck sport's version of the NBA's Kobe Bryant and LeBron James -- picked up a number of new partners this year, including Geico, Starwood Hotels, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, LG Electronics and Hershey's Canada.
Officials said corporate sponsorship rose 20% from last season, with ad spending on various NHL media up 37%. NHL.com ad revenue grew 50%, while revenue from big event platforms, led by the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, improved 22%.
Speaking of the latter, Collins said there will be a pair of outdoor games next season, including one in Canada.
He would not specify locations or whether Versus would televise the second game. "We're in discussions with each network," he said, noting that the NHL's schedule, including "Face-Off" contests would be unveiled sometime after the Stanley Cup Finals conclude and before the league's draft on June 25-26 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.