The once-in-a-lifetime alignment of this year’s NHL playoffs might not ensure a Canadian team will take home the Stanley Cup, but there’s at least one guaranteed winner on this side of the border: Rogers Sports & Media.
The company is anticipating strong TV ratings for the two-month postseason period, with one media industry professional projecting upwards of seven million viewers tuning in to a third-round series that is guaranteed to include a Canadian team. Those numbers would be the best for playoff hockey in a decade, predating Rogers’s purchase of the national rights for NHL games in a $5.2-billion, 12-year deal which began with the 2014-15 season.
The playoffs kicked off last weekend with U.S. teams, but they turned serious Wednesday night when the Edmonton Oilers faced off against the Winnipeg Jets, and they’ll likely crank up a few notches on Thursday when the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens meet for the first time in the postseason since 1979.
The first two rounds will include all-Canadian matchups of teams from the North Division, created because of COVID-19-induced restrictions against crossing the Canada-U.S. border during the regular season. That setup guarantees one Canadian team will make it at least as far as the third round, with a fair shot for a Canadian presence in the final.
“The Canadian division has created a ton of additional excitement this year,” said David Mear, director of business solutions for Horizon Media Canada, which handles ad-buying strategy for clients such as Tim Hortons, Benjamin Moore and Peloton. “There’s always been a strong audience for the playoffs, but obviously when you have teams like the Habs or the Leafs that don’t make it past the first round, or sometimes don’t even make it into the playoffs, audiences do tend to [fall off].”
The last time a Canadian team made it to the final, in the spring of 2011, an average of 6.15 million Canadians watched the seven-game matchup between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins, making it the highest Cup final average since Canadian TV networks began using meters to measure ratings, according to CBC, which broadcast the series.
Game 7, in which Boston won 4-0, pulled in an average of 8.7-million viewers.
That remains the high-water mark for a single postseason game featuring a Canadian pro team, besting the 7.7 million who watched the Toronto Raptors win Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 2019. This year’s Super Bowl brought in an average audience of 8.8 million viewers.
But big audiences are also expected for games in the first round, with the Leafs-Canadiens series projected to bring in between three million and 3.5 million, according to estimates shared with The Globe, with Sportsnet’s English-language broadcasts accounting for 2.3 million of that, or more, and TVA’s French-language broadcast likely attracting more than one million.
Audience projections – and ad rates – for NHL playoffs generally fall into three categories, according to Adam Seaborn, the director of sales and media operations for Kingstar Media. “Normally we’d look at: U.S. vs. U.S. team; U.S. vs non-Leafs Canadian team; and Leafs vs. whoever,” he said in an interview. “As you can imagine, the audience estimations and the pricing related with those three are dramatically different.”
He suggested that, if either the Leafs or the Canadiens make it through to the third round, Sportsnet would likely be looking at seven-million-plus viewers for each game.
Sportsnet acknowledged it has great expectations.
“It’s clear from the regular-season audiences that Canadian hockey fans have loved the Scotia North Division and we anticipate that excitement and interest will continue into the playoffs,” said Bart Yabsley, the president of Sportsnet, in a statement provided to The Globe. (The network said no one was available for an interview.)
“Two all-Canadian series and a guaranteed Canadian team in the conference finals is a unique situation both for fans and for us as broadcasters and we think everyone is really looking forward to seeing it all play out.”
The guaranteed Canadian presence makes buying ad time a safer bet for marketers, who usually need to commit in advance to placing ads across the full postseason.
“I think the demand [for ad time] will be really strong,” Seaborn said. “It’s not just going to be four games and we’re done [with Canadian teams]. We’re looking at six, eight weeks of an opportunity to make an impact on the market.” As well, he noted that, after a chaotic 14 or 15 months, “it does feel like this is kind of the back to reality time, where brands are like, ‘Okay, we’ve figured it out, we have our marketing budgets sorted, this is an opportunity to make a splash.’ "
Ad spending is showing signs of returning to pre-pandemic levels. Standard Media Index, an agency which monitors media purchases, reported last week that ad buys in Canada rose 4 per cent in the first quarter of 2021, over the same period in 2020. That brought spending levels to 1 per cent below what they were in the first quarter of 2019, with especially strong growth in March of this year.
“There is just a pent-up excitement around the playoffs,” Mear noted. “I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, just kind of allowing Canadians to embrace hockey. For [Tim Hortons] especially, it’s a way for us to engage consumers in a greater way than potentially we have in years past, just with the uniqueness of how the playoffs are going this year.”
The North Division – and the shorter season – has already proved a boon for broadcasters, with Sportsnet claiming a 43-per-cent year-over-year increase in its national Wednesday night hockey broadcasts during the regular season and TSN citing a 42-per-cent increase for its regional broadcasts of Winnipeg Jets games. Sportsnet’s Hockey Night in Canada 7 p.m. (ET) broadcasts were up 8 per cent over last year, for an average of two-million viewers, and its 10 p.m. (ET) games were up 23 per cent, for an average of one million, according to the network.
The NHL has said it will return to its traditional divisional alignment next season, which would once again scatter the seven Canadian teams across three of the NHL’s four regular divisions.