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NHL Playoffs Without Canadian Teams Threatens TV Ratings Drop

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1:15 PM PDT 4/10/2016 by Etan Vlessing

NBC Sports is primed for a ratings bonanza as the Stanley Cup tournament is an all-American team affair this year.

Diehard Canadian hockey fans aren’t trading in their Toronto Maple Leaf jerseys for Chicago Blackhawk or Detroit Red Wing ones just yet. 

But as the 2016 NHL playoff rounds get underway this week, an all-American team affair promises NBC Sports a ratings bonanza that Canada’s Sportsnet cable network can only dream of. “We can’t control who makes the playoffs,” Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBCSN, told The Hollywood Reporter after none of the seven Canadian-based teams made the NHL post-season for the first time in 46 years. 

“We root for long series and overtime games, and just enjoy the wonderful drama the NHL provides every spring,” Flood added as things couldn’t have played out any better for NBC Sports. Canada’s Sportsnet, by contrast, needs big-market Canadian teams for post-season dramatics during its biggest ratings period of the year. 

Sixteen American teams competing for the league championship this year means most Canadians could be tuning out, according to an April 7 Angus Reid poll. The survey reported 54 percent of regular Canadian NHL playoff watchers said they will view fewer games, or not watch at all, as no local team battles to represent Canada in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Only 30 percent said they’d watch as much as in past years, like 2015 when five Canadian teams made the post-season and two made it to the second round. “We’re reacting, not overreacting,” said Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties.

Much is riding on the NHL post-season for Rogers. The Canadian media giant in 2014 signed a 12-year, $5.2-billion TV deal for rights to league games and needs a payback.

Rogers is now getting creative to promote this year’s Stanley Cup playoff rounds without Canadian teams. “We will focus on the stars and the stories of the playoffs,” Moore said of hopefully compelling playoff storylines, both on and off the ice, from American teams like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Los Angeles.

Sportsnet is also pivoting to airing Toronto Blue Jay games, a success story for Rogers as it owns the MLB team that made the baseball playoffs last October, enabling higher TV ratings and ticket sales. Rogers is also making moves behind the scenes to shore up sagging NHL ratings after firing Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada senior vp Gord Cutler ahead of the Stanley Cup playoff rounds getting underway.

Rogers is moving all live sports studio production under Rob Corte, vp of Sportsnet and NHL production. Meanwhile, it is must-see American team match-ups that NBC Sports is relishing for big ratings this year in the NHL post-season.

After all, local fans drive TV ratings the further teams go in the playoff rounds, and especially during do-or-die game sevens. It is the original six NHL franchise teams like the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks that drive the biggest ratings for NBC Sports.

That’s opposed to teams in the South that haven’t been in the league as long, or Canadian teams whose fans do nothing for American advertisers. The NHL post-season is set to start Wednesday and run for nearly two months, culminating with the Stanley Cup finals starting June 1.

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