Chicago Blackhawks-Lightning Final Could Strike Gold

It’s coming down to matching Game 7s for the Chicago-Anaheim series and the New York-Tampa Bay series, and the NHL is surely counting their blessings as ratings grow with juggernauts like the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers on either side of the equation.

While New York is the largest market in television across all U.S. regions at 6.8% of viewers, with Nielsen counting approximately 7.5 million television homes in 2014, Chicago doesn’t lag far behind. They boast nearly 3.5 million television homes and sit at number three in the U.S. And to top it off, the Chicago Blackhawks have been involved in four of the five highest-rated NHL Finals games over the past five seasons.

The Blackhawks took spots two through five, the number two spot for Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009, with a television rating of 4.7 and drawing a viewing audience of 8.3 million. That rating was the highest-rated NHL game since 1974 and drew even higher in Chicago, at 32.8/50. While its title as highest-drawing was usurped only a year later by the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, and has not yet been beaten.

While the numbers speak for themselves, even anecdotally fans of the Hawks are known as some of the most passionate in the league, traveling to arenas far outside Chicago and buying an extraordinary amount of merchandise.

And while the Rangers might not have the same fanatical fanbase that Chicago does, their market share puts everyone else’s to shame, edging out Los Angeles, the second-largest U.S. television market by nearly a full two percent of the viewing population.

It is doubtless is good for the NHL’s business for it to come down to a Chicago-New York Stanley Cup Final. The most passionate market in hockey plus the largest market in hockey is nothing to sneer at, and ad revenues for the 2015-2016 season would be given a sizable boost. And the NHL needs to continue to prove its worth to its business partner in broadcasting, Comcast, if it wants to secure a raise in price when it comes time for a new contract in six years. So why would a Finals series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning, only the thirteenth-largest market in the U.S., be good for business?

Seattle And Las Vegas Will Be Watching

Simply put: the NHL is looking at another round of expansion. League commissioner Gary Bettman’s job is to grow the league, and it appears he’s not averse to doing that through adding more clubs.

Gary Bettman (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Gary Bettman (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Seattle and Las Vegas have talked about bringing an NHL franchise to their cities, and Vegas has even begun the ever-famous season ticket drive that has more or less stalled out at approximately a thousand deposits below the threshold the investors set as their test to show the NHL there was a viable market in Sin City.

The apparent $500 million-dollar pricetag to bring a team to Vegas or Seattle is no small thing either. It’s a lot of money to ask for in return for a franchise and while it may make Bettman and the League a lot of dough, it’s a risky step for nontraditional hockey markets to take as they look around the league.

With franchises in Arizona and Florida drawing nightly attendance of 13,000 and 11,000 respectively  it’s understandable that a city like Seattle might need to see a guarantee of a financial return on their starter fee. However, teams that are on the rise talent-wise, such as Dallas and Tampa Bay routinely draw near the top of their capacity, both at approximately 18,000 per game this season. It seems that the issue isn’t necessarily where a team is placed, but how good it is.

But a large part of attendance growth includes exposure, for which the Cup Finals are invaluable. Every team that wins a Cup has a rise in attendance the following year; the Lightning’s attendance peaked around 20,000 per game the year after they won the cup; the Blackhawks have sold out every year since (and including) 2009, when they won Lord Stanley after a very long drought for the Original Six franchise.

Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Championships
Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane lifting the Stanley Cup

With that attendance comes not just ticket and merchandise sales that directly benefit the league but tourism dollars: parking fees, nights in hotels, meals in surrounding restaurants, increased travel to the area via plane, train, car and bus as well as a million other niggling details one deals with when planning a trip. All of which cost money.

A showdown between Tampa Bay and Chicago would benefit the league twice over: a guaranteed strong ratings showing from Chicago fans and a reminder to potential NHL franchise cities that $500 million is a lot of money, but it can go a very long way.

While the NHL would get its payday practically up front, cities like Seattle and Las Vegas wouldn’t be left in the cold for long.