Canadian TV audience is the real market to capture

The Toronto Maple Leafs routinely have a higher TV audience than the more sought after American markets. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

The Toronto Maple Leafs routinely have a higher TV audience than the more sought after American markets. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

By: Chris Messina

@cmessina85

Maybe the NHL has had it wrong all this time. You can draw big TV numbers in Canada.

Last Wednesday, the Leafs/Habs game on TSN had over 1.5 million viewers plus 893,000 watched in French on RDS. For Canadian television those are huge numbers, probably much higher than many believed were attainable. It will be interesting to see going forward how this changes the leagues priorities.

Maybe now that this has happened the NHL will value the Canadian markets and the TV revenues they can generate. In the past, contrary to what the league says, they were taking a swing at a big US TV deal. Unfortunately it never happened.

They were dropped by both Fox and ESPN long ago and either of those networks has any interest in picking them back up.

That doesn’t mean that the league will stop trying to open that revenue stream, but maybe they will realize that before you can grow in non-hockey markets you have to squeeze all the juice out of the places that support the game.

To put into prospective how big the numbers were between Montreal and Toronto last week, on the same night south of the boarder NBC had the Flyers and the Capitals which only drew 433,000 viewers. That was the networks lowest Wednesday night total of the year. It’s not fair to compare a Montreal/Toronto matchup in Canada – especially with the year both teams are having – to two American clubs that wouldn’t be in the playoff if they started today, even with ‘hockey markets’ like Philadelphia and Washington playing.

It was the second time this year that TSN’s midweek games drew crazy numbers. Their first Wednesday night game after the lockout ended drew 1.4 million when Toronto played Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It just shows that although there are hockey fans in the United States, the real passion flies north of the 49th parallel.

On that same day the NBC rivalry game had their top ratings for the season to date. The Bruins and Rangers drew 956,000 viewers to TV sets around America to watch, but they still didn’t crack the one million viewer plateau. In the playoffs last year NBC averaged just over a million viewers per game, meanwhile many regionally broadcasted Leafs regular season games draw bigger audiences.

CBC pays $100 million annually to broadcast games for Hockey Night in Canada. Their agreement with the NHL is set to expire in the fall of 2014 and many are anxiously waiting to see if Bell and Rogers make a push to outbid them like they did for the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. If they do it could be a big pay day for the NHL and maybe have them interested in creating more Canadian rivalries through expansion or relocation.

The bottom line is the American TV market is not easy to squeeze into because it has been saturated by other sports. The NFL is king while Major League Baseball, the NBA and collegiate sports follow, then you have the tour sports like auto racing, golf and tennis that also generate lots of interest.

Hopefully what happens is the league moves teams back into Canada. A team in Quebec City could rival the Montreal Canadiens and a second team in Toronto would create tons of excitement when they play the Leafs.

The NHL still has many American markets that have roots in the game. Any of the original six markets like New York, Chicago and Boston generate great regional numbers for hockey and can still help tap into the US market.

It is however time to put the failed franchises behind. Why keep teams in places like Phoenix, Florida and Columbus when the markets haven’t supported NHL hockey? Even teams like Tampa Bay and Dallas fail to draw fans when they don’t have good teams.

These franchises are barriers in the way of generating more interest in Canada where the game is already strong but still with a couple of cities that don’t have teams and would support one. We are still waiting to how the Jets will do when their honeymoon period is over in Winnipeg. It’s going to be interesting to see if such a small market can spilt up the entertainment dollars between the NHL and CFL, despite having them play in opposite seasons. Regardless, it’s better than having the franchise toil away in Atlanta.

Nobody knows how this all is going to play out but with realignment on the way and the TV contract with CBC set to expire soon. This will be fun to watch. Just make sure you keep an eye on the ratings in both countries as the playoff races heat up. The NHL will be.

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