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Morning Flurries: Hockey’s struggling viewership

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The ratings for live sports are way down and the NHL is the worst of the bunch

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL got its first-ever Stanley Cup parade by boat this fall, when the Tampa Bay Lightning took home the league’s biggest prize following their bubble playoff championship.

While the image of dozens of boats floating along full of booze-soaked NHLers was plenty fun, though, the fan-less postseason experience was a letdown for plenty — and it appears that the overall enthusiasm levels just never reached where they were in years past.

According to data pulled by Sports Business Daily, the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Final saw a devastating drop in television viewership over the league’s 2019 numbers, plummeting by 61 percent compared to the Boston Bruins - St. Louis Blues showdown from last summer:

The NHL certainly wasn’t alone, and there were multiple factors likely at play. Tampa Bay and Dallas, the two markets that competed for the cup in the final this year, are certainly more niche markets when compared to an original six team like Boston last year — and the playoffs happened in August and September, a time when most people typically aren’t watching hockey (and are starting to gear up for football).

There’s also likely a small dip in viewership due to families cutting the cord on cable this summer, either as a part of the movement to streaming services seen worldwide in recent years or due to lost wages from the covid pandemic shutdowns. But according to at least one tweet, Q1 subscribers for cable in 2020 were only down by 6 percent, not 61 — meaning that a chunk of the lost viewers for hockey and other sports were due to other factors.

One area that likely didn’t affect viewership, though, is in how teams treated the black lives matter movement. Some might try to argue that the introduction of social causes into pandemic playing arenas caused the viewership dips, but the league that threw the most effort into their justice reform messages — the WNBA — actually didn’t see the same dip that other sports did:

The Finals for the WNBA went up by a modest amount, which looks much bigger when compared to other sports. [Swish Appeal, SBN]

The WNBA’s regular season? Also up — by nearly as much as the NHL saw their Final numbers drop. They, along with the NWSL, saw even the mild shifted prioritization of women’s sports earn them big leaps and bounds in people tuning in to catch them playing. [Sports Video]

Meanwhile... the caption for this tweet really says it all:

If 2020 was a zamboni, it would be this one.

In more serious hockey-related news, the WHL and ECHL made some announcements regarding tentative start times for their seasons.

The WHL was initially slated to start in early December, but that has been pushed back now to January 8, 2021:

The OHL has previously announced that they will return to play on December 1, 2020, but there are still massive questions surrounding how they’ll be able to play safely given the recent spikes in covid-positive cases in Ontario. The idea of requiring Ontario league teams to play contactless hockey has been tossed around, although no one seems particularly thrilled with that idea. Meanwhile, the QMJHL started its regular season on October 2, 2020 — although they have already had to put both their East and West Divisions on hold completely, and the Moncton Wildcats in the Maritimes Division have been postponed as well until further notice.

The ECHL has also announced that they’ll return to play on a rolling schedule, with 13 teams starting their season on December 11th and the remaining teams will start on January 15, 2021:

One team, the Atlanta Gladiators, have already voluntarily suspended their season and will resume play in 2021-22.

The return to play is contingent on jurisdictional approval, and likely won’t see many fans — if any at all — able to attend games. But for now, getting even a tentative start date for North American professional hockey is a positive.