Can Connor McDavid attract U.S. viewers and buck an NHL ratings trend?

We are about to embark on an interesting content experiment: Can Connor McDavid attract an American audience?

If it were about skill alone, the question would be foolish. There are NHL stars and then there is McDavid, a sports video game character come to life given his jaw-dropping combination of power skating, Gretzky-like vision and goal-scoring elan.

I mean, look at this:

McDavid is his sport’s best player, and that’s the building block other pro leagues have used to draw massive audience. LeBron James and Michael Jordan are famous examples of this.


You knew there would be a but.

McDavid plays for the Edmonton Oilers, who will face the Florida Panthers in this year’s Stanley Cup Final, beginning Saturday. Edmonton is in Alberta, Canada, which does not count toward the U.S. Nielsen ratings. So you immediately lose a home market for this final’s viewership numbers in the U.S. That issue could be mitigated if you had a big hockey market on the other side, such as Boston, Philadelphia or New York, but Miami is not that.

Last year’s Stanley Cup viewership is not cause for optimism. Vegas’ five-game win over the Panthers — who are back in the final this year — averaged 2.6 million viewers on the Turner networks, down 43 percent in viewership from the six-game series between the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning on ABC (4.6 million) in 2022. Per Sports Media Watch: Last year’s Game 5 audience of 2.72 million was the lowest Game 5 viewership for the Cup final in 29 years. The length of the series was a factor, as was the cable-only series.

So what will McDavid and Co. bring us as far as interest? Well, let’s examine some things working in the NHL’s favor. First, there is viewership momentum from this year’s postseason. Per Austin Karp of Sports Business Journal, the NHL has averaged 1.3 million viewers for the playoffs, up 14 percent year-over-year across TNT, truTV, ESPN and ABC.

The Western Conference final between the Oilers and Dallas Stars averaged 1.71 million viewers on Warner Bros. Discovery’s networks. That was up 5 percent over last year. Game 6 of the Panthers’ Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers averaged 3.02 million viewers on ABC, the largest audience for a conference final game since Game 7 of the Chicago Blackhawks against the Anaheim Ducks on NBC in 2015.


McDavid is hockey’s superstar. Will a Stanley Cup finally elevate his status in America?

TNT Sports averaged 1.2 million viewers for its postseason coverage, up 5 percent over last year. Karp reported ESPN’s playoff coverage is up 22 percent headed into ABC’s coverage of the final. Very positive, all.

What else? The Oilers were seen on U.S. television a ton this year, and that should help. If the series goes deep, we do have one marker where a Canadian team was part of one of the most-watched Game 7s in the modern Nielsen era. That came in 2011 when 8.54 million viewers tuned in for the Boston Bruins’ 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. (I would tend to put the reason for that viewership number mostly on Boston.)

Maybe the biggest thing this series has going for it? Each Stanley Cup Final game will be available on ABC, ESPN+ and ESPN Deportes, and being on a network makes a difference. ABC reaches approximately 12.5 million more homes than WBD’s offerings.

“My understanding of the way ratings work is if there are two American teams that are in there, we’re going to do a huge rating in both of (those cities),” said ESPN’s Sean McDonough, who will call the series with Ray Ferraro and Emily Kaplan. “Obviously, we don’t have the advantage of that with Edmonton. … I do think we’ve seen in the growth of the ratings this year (that) the interest level in the NHL is growing regardless of who’s playing in the games. I think people are excited to see McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl and the rest of that team. There is the storyline of a Canadian team winning. So I think the matchup is fabulous. You have this great defensive team that also has plenty of players who are offensively very skilled and capable against, to me, one of the great players of all time in McDavid.”

The negatives? First, as we said, there is no home market boosting the Nielsen data numbers. Miami isn’t a top-10 media market as far as households. Also, the recent history of Canadian teams playing in the final has been low in the States. In 2021, the five-game series between the Montreal Canadiens and Lightning averaged 2.52 million viewers for NBC and NBCSN. The five-game series between Anaheim and Ottawa in 2007 was the least-watched final on record, averaging just 1.74 million viewers between NBC and Versus (remember us?!).

“I do think this series will be a good indicator of McDavid’s drawing power,” said Jon Lewis, the editor and founder of Sports Media Watch, the leading public website on sports viewership. “No disrespect to the Panthers, but based on last year’s numbers (albeit on cable), I’m not expecting them to be the primary reason people are tuning in. The American side of the equation does not matter the way it would if it was Florida-Dallas. I’m actually expecting viewership to increase on ABC because of how low a bar last year’s final set on TNT. But the numbers on this side of the border should be on the low side.”

That’s how I see it as well. Anthony Crupi, the Sportico writer, predicted if this series goes six games, it could be in the neighborhood of that 2022 Stanley Cup Final between the Avalanche and Lightning, which averaged 4.6 million viewers for ABC and ESPN+. If The Athletic’s NHL experts are correct, the series is going to be tight, a true toss up. That would bode very well as far as a viewership-centric outcome.

The longer this series goes, the better the odds that some casual sports fans decide to check out a once-in-a-generation athlete.

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(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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