How NHL Conference Finals Will Help Game Grow

The National Hockey League has had an interesting playoffs to say the least. NBC has aired every game of these playoffs on either the flagship network, NBC Sports Network or CNBC, and the result has been record ratings. Meanwhile, columns from coast to coast are being furiously written decrying the defensive play that has made the playoffs too low scoring, too boring.

While goals bring flashes of excitement in each game, it is the end results that are most important. It is the wins that attract new fans in local markets. While the games might be boring to the veteran hockey fan or writer, they’ve been no less entertaining for the casual fan who essentially knows no different.

For the fan bases of Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York and New Jersey, all that matters is who has more goals when the final buzzer sounds in terms of attracting new fans and, more importantly, holding on to them. Each of the four remaining teams have found a way to extend their season, while also extending their relevance locally.

This year’s playoff slogan captures it accurately. There is excitement built into the playoffs simply “Because it’s the Cup.” Local fans want championships. They don’t care how the local team gets there, as long as they get there.

Some have said the lack of goals will hurt the growth of the game, which is a valid concern when it comes to national TV ratings, but where the argument goes sour is the failure to recognize the overwhelming importance of grabbing the local audience first. Keeping the locals interested and engaged is of paramount importance to overall growth of the game. Local interest is driven by wins and those interest-driving wins lead to growth. Need proof? Keep reading…

There’s no question that the surefire way to ignite a fanbase and cause hockey fever of epidemic proportions is for the local club to win the Stanley Cup. Following the Cup, teams can expect higher local TV ratings, better ticket sales and more new youth hockey players. After the Cup wins for Pittsburgh, Chicago, Carolina and Dallas, hockey membership grew by close to 20 percent in each of those teams’ states.

However, just getting close to the Cup counts, too, especially when it’s been a while since the local team has been this close. None of the teams playing in this year’s conference finals has been to this stage of the playoffs in at least the last nine years. Phoenix has never been here, while LA hasn’t since 1993, New York since 1997 and New Jersey since 2003.

This couldn’t have worked out better for the NHL or USA Hockey, for that matter.

There is a palpable buzz surrounding each team, and the TV ratings are showing it already, both nationally and locally. While ratings can be a bit fickle, they can be one of the best indicators of how much attention the team is holding locally.

Via Puck the Media, Game 1 in the Western Conference Finals drew 1.1 million viewers nationally. It was the 14th game of the playoffs to eclipse 1 million viewers. Last year’s postseason altogether had just nine games go over the 1 million mark.

Here’s what happened in the local markets according to PTM:

Game 1 drew a 5.5 in Phoenix and a 2.1 in Los Angeles. The NBC Sports Network was the number one network in both markets for the evening.

That’s a lot of eyeballs on hockey in those local markets, if it’s enough for NBCSN to win the night in the nation’s 13th (Phoenix) and second (LA) largest media markets.

Over in the nation’s largest media market, the Devils and Rangers played to a large television audience locally, while also attracting a sizable national audience.

From Puck the Media:

Game 1 of the Devils/Rangers Eastern Conference Final series drew a huge 6.2 local rating in New York, the highest number for any Stanley Cup broadcast in the market so far this post-season. It beats out Game 7 of the Rangers-Senators first round series (a 5.7) on MSG for the top spot.

Each game has been played before packed, loud stadiums. Hockey is being chattered about on local sports talk radio. It’s dominating the sports section and making front page news in some cases. It’s leading local TV newscasts. It’s being talked about… a lot.

All of that works into a high saturation point for hockey in four different states. Exposure breeds interest, interest breeds growth. It’s the circle of life.

Here’s an example of how the conference finals can help grow the game:

A run to the Conference Finals, combined with the Blackhawks’ new-found marketing acumen created a fervor around the team in 2009. The city of Chicago, long dormant from years of disappointment, awakened thanks to a young team playing an exciting and more importantly winning brand of hockey.

In the 2008-09 season, the Blackhawks had returned to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1995. The team had backed up all of the marketing and good will built up by the business side on the ice. People of northern Illinois just plain bought in.

For much of the 10 preceding years, hockey’s growth was pretty stagnant in the state of Illinois. The Land of Lincoln had always had a pretty significant hockey population, but hockey membership hovered around 21,000 from 1998 to 2008, never fluctuating by more than a few hundred players in that span.

With the area in a full on hockey frenzy over the new-found success of the Chicago Blackhawks, hockey rinks began filling up.

The following season, despite the fact that Chicago lost in five games to the Detroit Red Wings, USA Hockey reported Illinois’ hockey-playing population had ballooned to 24,018. That’s a 10 percent increase after a decade of stagnant growth, and that’s before the Blackhawks even won the Cup.

Of course the next year, the Blackhawks did win hockey’s ultimate prize, and membership grew to 26,528 in 2010-11. So over two years, hockey membership increased by 20.8 percent. The trip to the Conference Finals, surrounded by everything else the Blackhawks did to attract new fans, was a huge catalyst.

The best part about the growth in Illinois is that a good portion of the gains were made in the youngest age groups over that two-year period, meaning that the growth is likely sustainable, as the retention rate is higher among kids who start hockey earlier.

New York’s and New Jersey’s hockey membership numbers have each grown significantly in the last year, but both teams battling it out for a shot to play for the Stanley Cup should keep things moving in the right direction.

When the New York Rangers won the Cup in 1994, hockey membership skyrocketed in the state. In 1992-93, New York had 31,693 hockey players in the state. By 1995-96, two seasons after the dramatic 1994 victory, there were 44,847 registered players statewide. As of last season, there were 48,169. The most dramatic growth came post-Cup and the Rangers hadn’t been back to the Eastern Conference finals since 1997. Could this team bring another dramatic rise to New York’s hockey growth? While it might not have the same impact of the Mark Messier-led Rangers of 1994, there’s a good chance this year’s Blue Shirts will make a sizable splash.

New Jersey won the Cup in 1995, which also led to tremendous growth for the state. In 1992-93, the Garden State boasted 7,804 registered players. In 1995-96, the season immediately following the Cup, that number went up to 10,515. Ever since, it’s continued a steady climb to the 17,292 of 2010-11. A big series with its biggest rival should help that keep moving in the right direction.

However, where the most gains can be made is in the West.

Phoenix has never even sniffed this part of the postseason before. Despite all of the fear about relocation and league ownership and poor ticket sales, that has faded away for at least a little bit. It’s all about hockey in the desert right now.

Arizona has experienced some growth over the last few years, and a good portion of it is due to the Coyotes. The Phoenix organization has been one of the hardest working teams when it comes to engaging the youth hockey community. Without them in the state, there’s a good chance there’s very little growth, if any at all.

Star players have come and gone in the Coyotes organization, but they’ve never had much success. For the first time since they’ve been in the desert, the Coyotes are giving people something to get really, really excited about. Success breeds excitement, excitement breeds interest. Interest breeds growth. That circle thing again.

We know people are watching based on TV ratings. We can see people are showing up to the rink, dressed in all white. We can see that the team is relevant locally.

Though we won’t know the results of this unprecedented playoff run until next June when USA Hockey unveils the 2012-13 membership numbers, we should expect to see a spike. If the Coyotes find a way to come back in the series and maybe win the Stanley Cup, it would lead to record growth in Arizona, I guarantee it. Even without the Cup, the Coyotes have done a lot of good for hockey in their home state by making it this far.

Los Angeles is also interesting. Hockey has grown in California in a big way since Wayne Gretzky showed up. In 1990-91, California had 4,830 hockey players. By 1995-96 it had 15,537. As of 2010-11, there was a record 22,305 registered hockey players in the state.

After Anaheim won the Stanley Cup in 2007, hockey membership grew by 7 percent. It was minimal in the grand scheme of things, but California had not seen that much of a jump since the Gretzky Era.

Currently leading the series 2-0, the Kings (which arguably have a more established fanbase than Anaheim) are on the brink of making LA a hockey town. Despite both the Clippers and Lakers in the NBA playoffs and the Dodgers enjoying a terrific start to the season, the Kings are garnering enough attention to draw strong television ratings and a ton of local exposure.

If the Ducks can aid hockey membership by 7 percent from one season to the next, how much could the Kings do? Probably quite a bit more. What the Kings have done already should help influence hockey’s growth locally, but making it to and winning in the next round ensures it. Either way, the Kings have done a lot of good for hockey in Southern California once again.

So while blocked shots, ugly hits and low-scoring games are dominating the hockey media headlines, Twitter and blogs, the only thing that matters to the people in the seats and at home in front of their television sets is the win.

The games are still attracting a large national audience, regardless of the “boring hockey” anyway. That said, the biggest gains in terms of sustainable growth at least for this year will be made in the markets of each of the Conference Finals participants.

And with each win, each team is bringing in new fans and most likely new hockey players. So, everybody wins, I guess.

Membership numbers source:


About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in Grow the Game, NHL, USA Hockey, Youth Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How NHL Conference Finals Will Help Game Grow

  1. Pingback: How NHL Conference Finals Will Help Game Grow | The United … – Hockey NHL

  2. Martin Breen says:

    Chris, interesting read, I will disagree with you that the Kings play a boring style of hockey. Yes, they did during the season but not since the playoffs have started. First, watching Jonathan Quick make spectacular save after spectacular save is incredible. His sliding split saves are a thing of beauty.

    Watching Brown and Kopitar dominate the game with their size and skill is equally exciting. Kopitar has been an absolute beast with the puck, he just refuses to give it up. Brown has been a hitting a machine and has scored some beauties. The kings forecheck is ferocious, in Game 3, Phoenix couldn’t even get out of their zone leaving Smith in the net until only 30 seconds were left.

  3. Martin Breen says:

    Note to AEG: You have an incredibly loyal fan base and this run will certainly add more fans but you’re not doing enough in the LA area to support youth hockey. These are your future fans. The Kings do not own or subsidize any rinks. I think they lent their name to one local rink and of course they have a practice rink with the Jr. Kings. However, this is not sufficient, if you truly want to make LA a long term hockey town. Buy some rinks, place a few junior teams here, have the Kings get out into the community and sell the game.

    I will happily take the job and show you how to make LA into another hockeytown.

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