Numbers are funny things.
For example, the Scripps National Spelling Bee televised by ESPN last week drew 4 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, while Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers had 3.1 million viewers.
Yet viewership for the spelling bee was down from 5.5 million viewers a year ago and NHL ratings are only going up.
FOR THE RECORD:
NBA ratings: In Tuesday's Sports section, the On Sports Media column dissected the ratings jump for the Stanley Cup finals and NBA Finals and said 21% of the viewing market in Chicago and L.A. tuned in for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. It was 21% of the viewing market in Boston and L.A. —
Viewership for Sunday night's Game 5, won by Chicago, 7-4, and aired on NBC, was up 54% over last year's Game 5 between the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, according to the overnight ratings. And that's going head-to-head against Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Boston Celtics. And, yes, the Lakers-Celtics ratings are also up.
At least more of us seem to be watching live sporting events. It also means nearly everybody in Chicago and Philadelphia is watching hockey.
Here's another couple of numbers, courtesy of Steve Master, vice president of sports for Nielsen.
In Chicago and L.A., 21% of the viewing market tuned in for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Through four games of the Stanley Cup finals, 51% of potential viewers in Chicago and Philadelphia watched.
"What that tells us is that for the NHL, the markets involved really drive ratings," Master said. "The fact that fans in Chicago and Philadelphia are so incredibly engaged really matters. Those are just huge numbers coming out of those two markets."
It has been an upward trending of numbers for the NHL all through the playoffs, both on Versus and NBC. Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup finals led NBC to win the night's overall ratings race, while the networks' overall viewership for the first four games averaged 5.2 million, up from 4.8 million last year.
It seems hockey is having its day.
On May 7, the Boston Bruins played the Flyers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and got 328,000 viewers in Boston on Versus; the Red Sox played the New York Yankees and the local television broadcast on NESN had 223,000 viewers; and Game 3 of the Cleveland-Boston NBA Eastern Conference semifinals drew 142,000 on ESPN. That was a hockey beatdown, at least for a day and in one city.
Jamie Davis, president of Versus, agreed that Chicago and Philadelphia have boosted the ratings but said there was more to it.
"I attribute this to a whole bunch of factors," Davis said. "I think it started at the Olympics when Team USA did so well. That gave a boost to the final six weeks of the regular season for us. We saw our ratings go up 30% over a year ago during the last six weeks. And then, all through the playoffs, the level of play has been unbelievable."
Last year, with Detroit, known as "Hockeytown" because of its devoted fan base and historic success, playing Pittsburgh, with its star Sidney Crosby, it was thought ratings would hit record levels. It didn't happen.
"Partly because of the Olympics," Davis said, "players like Patrick Kane, Chris Pronger, Roberto Luongo are being recognized outside of the hockey community."
John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, said the league would have preferred not to have gone head-to-head against the Lakers and Celtics on Sunday night.
"We clearly lost some viewers in Boston, which has been a historically strong hockey market," Collins said. "But what is pleasing so far is that it seems like the casual fan who has tuned in has returned. They are seeing the quality of hockey at least as good as in that Olympic gold-medal game, if not better."
The ratings upswing comes at a good time for the NHL. Its deals with NBC and Versus end after the 2010-2011 season. But here comes the caution:
You can't guarantee Chicago and Philadelphia will be in the finals again in our lifetime. And what happens if the Kings were to play for the Stanley Cup? How would those ratings go? So far, of the top 50 markets in average viewership share, L.A. has ranked 43rd.