Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly reported that league attendance for the 2008-09 regular season grew 1.1% to 21.4 million fans. The attendance increase was led by the Chicago Blackhawks, with an average attendance for the just completed regular season of 21,752, a 29.4% increase from the previous season. It is impressive how Rocky Wirtz and the management of the Hawks have re-connected the club back to their fan base in the Windy City and its suburbs. The Washington Capitals had the second largest jump in attendance with an increase of 17% to 18,097; and the Bruins were third in average attendance increases with 17,040, a gain of 10.4% (hat tip to Tripp Mickle of Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal for the numbers).
Perhaps of more interest to hockey fans in America is how the NHL did on the tube. Looking at the numbers on a percentage basis only, one could surmise that the ratings growth of the NHL on television is exceptional. NBC has a 22.2% increase in the average number of viewers for the nine regular season games they broadcast (including the Winter Classic but does not take into account the 10th game of their regular season package, which was broadcast on the last day of the season).Versus had a healthy 13.8% increase in average viewers for the 54 telecasts that had for the recently concluded season (excluding the season opening games in Europe). These percentage increases in viewership look healthy until one looks at the average annual viewer per telecast. For NBC (and these numbers reflect the increased viewership), the average weekly telecast drew 1.62 million viewers per telecast (without the Winter Classic, it would have been 1.1 million viewers); for Versus, the average telecast drew 310,000 viewers per telecast. Compare that with the Canadian broadcasters, of which there are three. CBC Hockey Night in Canada had 52 broadcasts drawing an average of 1 million viewers per telecast, an increase of 4.9%. Rogers Sportsnet had 120 broadcasts drawing an average of 650,000 viewers per telecast, an increase of 7.4%; and TSN had 82 broadcast drawing 451,000 viewers per telecast, an increase of 11.9%. Versus in the U.S. is the primary carrier of weekly hockey games and draws 31% less viewership than the weakest Canadian broadcaster does for an average broadcast. Although Versus is now being added to many cable systems, its coverage in the States is somewhat limited, which affects the total viewership numbers.
So what does this mean for the NHL, its franchises, and the exposure of the game in the U.S? Consider this: an average broadcast night during the regular season in Canada brings in 2.1 million viewers; in the U.S., it is 310,000. For the game to grow- beyond those fans who make the trek to the arena- the exposure in the U.S. market via television coverage has to increase. I am not critical of Versus (and yes, I know there are things we can criticize); I am grateful they have provided an outlet for hockey here. But the reality is that the League lost a monumental amount of exposure when they could not get a new television deal done with ESPN.The reach of Versus in the U.S. is limited while ESPN is nationwide. Additionally, the contract between the NHL and NBC is up for renewal. NBC values the Winter Classic, but frankly it appears not much else about the NHL as evidenced by only ten Sunday broadcasts at the end of the season. Both Versus and NBC have a proclivity to showing teams from the large markets. Part of this is strategic as teams such as the Rangers or Red Wings can draw a number of viewers due to the size of their TV market and their fan base. Part of this is perception. It is presumed that a game involving the Predators or Hurricanes, for instance, will not generate as much fan interest and viewership. Looking at the numbers of the the TV market in Nashville, for example, one could say this is a reasonable assumption. However, I would contend there is compelling hockey being played in these markets and those games can and will draw in fans of the game. Obviously, this is a biased assumption on the part of a Preds fan, but it begs the question "Will the game grow in non-traditional markets if they are ignored by the national broadcasters?" (I am forgoing a mention of the regional broadcasts such as the Predator games on Fox Sports). Can the game that we love grow a national footprint with such limited coverage and coverage of only a few teams? I think it will be difficult at best.
What does this mean for the Predators specifically and the league in general? First, don't expect to see the Preds on many, if any, national broadcasts. I know that occasionally we have been on Versus (one time in each of the last three seasons), but for a fan in another market, it will be rare to see the brand of hockey that the Predators play. This lack of exposure hurts from the standpoint of players and coaches receiving recognition for their efforts, but more importantly, fails to reach the casual fan. For the league, negotiating a viable national TV contract is essential. The game needs exposure in the U.S. from a carrier that has a national footprint. Until then, broadcast revenues to the league will be nominal at best, and interest in the game, for the most part, will be confined to the fan that makes the effort to get to the arena. While the league does a great job of disseminating information through non-traditional channels such as the web and bloggers, getting TV exposure that reaches a broad swath of the sports viewing public is lacking and has to be improved in order to grow the game.
Challenges abound for the league in the coming months as they begin to renegotiate the current TV contracts. Hopefully, for hockey fans everywhere, the exposure will improve and introduce more fans to the game we all love.