NEW YORK, N.Y. - The NHL capped last season with its best U.S. television rating for a game in 36 years.
League officials think they can do even better.
That conviction will help guide the NHL's negotiations for its next U.S. TV contracts. Deals with NBC and Versus expire after this season.
"A lot of it has to do with getting the exposure, getting the word out," John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, said before this season. "People can talk about how great the finals were—and they were—and how great it was to have Chicago and Philly.
"While people really came to the Flyers' story and it really began to resonate with them, they didn't get to it until pretty late in the playoffs. We look at it and we're saying, 'How much bigger could this thing be?'"
There's no question that Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final put together many of the ingredients that make a big TV rating. It had two large markets in Chicago and Philadelphia engrossed in their teams' playoff runs; franchises with enough tradition to draw fans in other cities; the recognizable names of rising stars; and a series that went deep.
But Collins points out that the game's 4.7 rating on NBC came even though none of the seventh-seeded Flyers' first-round playoff games were televised nationally in the U.S. in their entirety.
Beyond the simple goal of generating more money from its next contracts, the league faces the question of how to best grow the game. At a recent media gathering to discuss the upcoming HBO reality series centred on the Winter Classic—another sign of the NHL's burgeoning appeal—Collins made clear he believes the league has been held back by a lack of exposure.
"Particularly here in the U.S., the hockey fan is so underserved," he said.
"I don't think it's a big secret we're in the last year of our U.S. agreements, and we have this year to sit down with our current partners and figure out how we can improve all that," Collins said. "That will be one of the things we want to talk about: How do we take our marquee events, particularly the Stanley Cup playoffs, and make them even bigger?"
Such talk was unimaginable when NHL was starting its relationships with NBC and Versus. The league was coming off the devastating lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, and U.S. ratings were minuscule when hockey returned.
U.S. ratings have bounced back to match—and even exceed—pre-lockout levels. The numbers are all relative, of course: the NHL still falls short of baseball and basketball in the United States. It's a different story in Canada, of course, where hockey gets high TV ratings. But the league clearly has far more leverage than it did when it signed a deal just before the lockout in which NBC paid no fees for the broadcasting rights but instead shared advertising revenues.
"We have a great partnership with the NHL. It's a terrific product," NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer said. "We are proud to have broadcast some of the most-watched games in NHL and hockey history in recent years and would love to see our relationship continue in the future."
NBC will televise the Winter Classic, nine additional regular-season games, some weekend playoff matchups and up to five games of the Stanley Cup final this season. Versus is scheduled to air 79 regular-season games and the remainder of the playoffs.
The Flyers weren't the only ones left off national TV in the first round of last season's playoffs. Of 49 games, only 26 were broadcast nationally in the United States in their entirety, with another 10 joined in progress. All Major League Baseball and NBA playoff games are televised nationally.
Another hindrance to exposure: "National" doesn't mean everybody can see them. Versus is available in just 65 per cent of American homes with televisions.
The NHL's previous cable partner, ESPN, is in 86 per cent. ESPN officials have repeatedly said they're interested in possibly televising hockey again but won't comment beyond that.
Putting games on ESPN in any sport means the network can promote them during other highly watched events. Plus it can draw in more casual fans who often flip over to ESPN just to see what's on.
The trade-off in gaining all those extra potential viewers is the NHL would have to compete for time and favourable programming slots with the many other major sports aired on ESPN's networks. Versus, in contrast, has dedicated itself to deep and frequent coverage of the league.
"We cover it like no one else has ever covered it," network president Jamie Davis.
He's confident Versus' approach has contributed to fans' increased interest in hockey.
"If you only come on and broadcast games and show game highlights, they don't get to know the players," Davis said.
Through its first five games this season, Versus' NHL viewership was up 27 per cent from last year. The Flyers-Penguins opener was the most-watched NHL regular-season telecast on cable since 2004.
"I think the league is very happy with the relationship they have with Versus," Davis said, "and the success the sport has had under our watch."