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OK, the Reasons NHL TV Ratings Are Down; Simple Fixes



Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL TV ratings

For the second consecutive season, national NHL TV ratings are down. This wasn’t supposed to happen after the NHL ditched little ol’ NBC and NBCsports for the worldwide leader in sports, ESPN, and TNT.

No siree Bob, the national NHL TV ratings were supposed to continue an upward trend and reach the heights of the NBA.

The product is as good as its ever been. We’re entering another golden era of offensive hockey, yet ratings are down.

Funny thing. The NHL and its TV partners continue to misunderstand their products and what the fans truly want. Granted, that can be difficult because, like any relationship, what someone says they want isn’t often what they really want (amIrite?). You have to look at actions, not words.

Look for instances when fans are tuned in, look for commonalities, and then the whys and hows will become clear.

The website For the Win published a story about fan reaction to the down national ratings and included tweets from our old friends Penguins Jesus and Hunter Hodies, among many others.

Unfortunately, fans have a habit of coalescing around narratives that sound good and feel good but aren’t necessarily true. Remember, words mean less than actions.

So, perhaps info from someone who lives and dies on daily fan activity, who monitors 15 NHL markets each morning, and otherwise answers to the fans will help.

By the way, that person is me.

Many fans gathered around staggered start times of the east coast games. In theory, that might help ratings, but that is not why they are down. First, let’s be clear–the ratings are down from last season. There have never been staggered start times, so that’s not a reason ratings are down.

It’s tough for many fans to make a 7 p.m. game, so suggestions to schedule some games for 6:30 p.m. are not going to help. They would hurt attendance and local ratings. Scratch that idea.

Fans were also upset at the number of regional blackouts on ESPN+. That’s a problem, but local sports networks are available on streaming services like FUBO. Also, ratings have dropped by a whopping 22%; I doubt that 22% of the country has cut the cord in the last 12 months.

Cable cutting hurt, but not to that extreme extent.

Do you want to know the real reasons why hockey is losing viewers this season? The hockey has not resonated with fans and provided the primary reasons hockey fans watch the game. The games haven’t stunk–look at the ridiculous offensive skill on display–but the games have lacked exciting qualities.

Penguins fans aren’t much different than fans across the U.S. The game of hockey is a bit of a mystery; ask most people to draw a left-wing lock or describe the Penguins’ forecheck strategy, and you’ll likely get a lot of blank stares.

Yet ask most U.S. fans about a delayed corner blitz or stunt, and they could tell you. That difference is hockey’s fault for shrouding its game and inaccessibility at a youth sports level, but it’s a reality.

Fans aren’t tuning in for the possibility of a Michigan goal, nor will they for a coaching clinic.

Hockey fans prefer intensity, physicality, and competitive hockey, which means something. Those qualities stir the soul. The lacrosse goals by Trevor Zegras get Twitter’s attention and make highlight reels, but the meaningful hockey gets fans to the TV.

And what brings intensity and meaning? Rivalry. Division rivalry, old rivalries, and battles for a scarcity of resources (in this case, the playoffs).

In division rivalries, fans know the players. Often they hate the other players.


The biggest reason for the drop in interest this season isn’t the same number of blackouts that have existed or the standard 7 p.m. start times but the fact that the NHL schedule this season stinks. It STINKS, and that’s being kind.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will face their biggest rivals three times. THREE?! That’s new this season and a stark difference from two seasons ago when teams played their rivals and only their rivals.

The ratings two seasons ago were through the roof, even as the 2020 NFL ratings dropped (so, we can’t say the pandemic boosted sports ratings as some posited).

The 2021 NFL ratings returned to normal, but 2022 saw a modest 3% dip. The NHL saw a spike while the NFL dropped.


What was different then, and what is happening now — the Penguins have already played the Buffalo Sabres three times this season, the Montreal Canadiens, Florida Panthers, and Toronto Maple Leafs twice.

The Penguins have played Metro Division rivals the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders just once each. They’ve squared off against the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals only twice.

Do fans across the country want to see the Penguins vs. Toronto? Or do they want Penguins v. Rangers? Do they want Penguins vs. St. Louis or Penguins vs. Philadelphia?

PHN readership for those rivalry games is generally 20-25% higher. The same stats apply across our network. But there are fewer of those games.

And there are fewer people watching TV.


NHL TV Ratings Fix

The fix is simple. The NHL must return to a division-heavy schedule. As much as the league focuses on the national product, U.S. hockey fans do not focus nationally. Connor McDavid vs. Sidney Crosby didn’t even sell out in Pittsburgh because fans weren’t amped by the Oilers vs. Penguins.

The same is true across the U.S. The league returned to the divisional playoff format to foment rivalries, and it has to a large degree, so why wait until the playoffs to showcase games fans want (and are excited by)?

Another fix is to stop listening to Twitter. Take the data, not the words. While Buffalo is a wildly interesting team to those who cover the game, it’s not necessarily interesting to Penguins fans three times in the first 40 games because it’s not a four-point game.

It’s become a four-point game, but they weren’t then. The same goes for the other Atlantic Division teams. They don’t light the fire of fans in either city the same way a divisional game does.

Are you going to watch Montreal vs. Toronto or Toronto vs. Columbus? The former, of course.

Division rivalry brings the heat, the intensity that hockey fans crave. Our numbers show it clearly. 

And the NHL TV numbers show it clearly.