Good news, bad news for NHL early in 2020-21

When the 2020-21 NHL faced off back in January, fans knew they’d be in for over 100 days of consecutive hockey games even though the season was reduced to a 56-game intra-division schedule. Hockey isn’t the only sport in action during the Covid-19 pandemic though as the NBA and NFL have been playing and European soccer games are being broadcast to North America on a regular basis, not to mention boxing and the UFC.

With all the competition for TV viewers it’s a bit surprising to many experts that fans have been tuning into NHL contests in record numbers in North America in both French and English. When the league dropped the puck on January 13th, the NBCSN (NBC Sports Network) in America kicked off with a bang by broadcasting a triple header.

The first game featured the Philadelphia Flyers vs the Pittsburgh Penguins at 5:30 p.m. ET and it averaged 972,000 viewers, making it the most-watched regular-season encounter in the history of the network. The second contest saw the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning raise their banner to the roof before taking on the Chicago Blackhawks with the Colorado Avalanche hosting the St. Louis Blues in the night’s finale.

The three midweek games combined for an average of 774,000 viewers to make it NBCSN’s most-watched multi-game opening evening. Meanwhile, up in Canada on opening night, the Montreal Canadiens visited the Toronto Maple Leafs with the broadcast averaging 2.1 million viewers on the Sportsnet platform. This made it the network’s most-watched regular-season NHL game and another 919,000 viewers tuned in to the TVA Sports network in the province of Quebec.

After the Leafs edged the Canadiens in overtime, the Edmonton Oilers took on the Vancouver Canucks out west and pulled in an average of 1.1 million viewers for Sportsnet. The two back-to-back games have been the most-watched doubleheader in regular-season history for the network. Of course, in today’s technologically-advanced era, this includes viewers on television sets, mobile phones and whatever other media devices are capable of picking up hockey broadcasts these days.

Since the province of Quebec was living under an 8 pm curfew it should have been expected that viewership numbers would rise for TVA though. But in total, viewers for the league’s opening night bonanza reached just over 11.4 million, which was a 52 per cent increase from the previous season and the highest number since the 2014-15 campaign faced off.

When the first Saturday night of the season rolled around and Hockey Night in Canada made its debut, an average of 2.8 million viewers in Canada tuned into CBC, TVA and Sportsnet combined to check out the Maple Leafs clash with the Ottawa Senators and the Canadiens take on the Oilers for a 13 per cent increase over last year’s average viewership.

When the free-to-air NBC network broadcast the Penguins vs the Washington Capitals at 12 noon ET on the first Sunday of the season, the contest averaged over 1.7 million viewers in America alone. This represents a 42 per cent increase over the networks’ first broadcast last season and was the most-watched indoor NHL regular-season game on NBC in the past three years. In total, the first 11 games shown in America on the NBC platform this season pulled in an average 526,000 fans for an increase of 14 per cent over last season.

Regional network games have also seen an increase in viewers for fans of the Vegas Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and St. Louis Blues. That’s good news for the NHL, but the bad news is that the current pandemic has resulted in the postponement of several games so far. This hasn’t affected most fans luckily, since the majority of teams are playing games in empty arenas. However, a few clubs are allowing a limited number of spectators into the stands.

As of February, 7th, close to 100 NHL players have had to miss at least one game due to a positive Covid-19 test or contact tracing. When several players from the same team have had to sit out it has led to the postponement of games including those of the Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, and St. Louis Blues among others. In fact, over 20 games had to be rescheduled in the first month of the season.

So perhaps that’s the luck of the NHL in a nutshell. The league is off to a flying start where TV viewership is concerned, but it’s had to postpone games on a regular basis which means those fans will have to tune into something else when their favourite team is sitting out.

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