NHL’s 1st Round the Most Watched on Cable in 25 Years, Gen-Z Key to Continued Growth


NBCUniversal reported that the 1st round of the 2019 NHL Playoffs was the highest rated (Nielsen, Adobe Analytics) in 7 seasons (778,000 viewers, +1% YoY) and the most watched on cable television in 25 years (673,000 viewers, +18% YoY). 3 Game 7s - including the most watched 1st round game on cable since ’94 (Hurricanes/Capitals, 1.75 million viewers) - and use of the Total Audience Delivery (TAD) metric that accounts for streaming viewership explains the increase in eyeballs.

For the National Hockey League to continue to grow viewership in the years ahead ('18-'19 regular season: +2% YoY across all NBC platforms), they'll need to re-condition a Gen-Z fan that prefers highlights to games. But to do that, the league must speak to that audience in a language that they understand” - which explains why the league formed the Power Players program; a council consisting of 13-17 year old hockey fans that will “provide insight and suggestions on matters including marketing, community engagement, events, social content and understanding rules of play.”

Howie Long-Short: A recent survey of over 400 Gen-Z university students (ages of 18-23) indicated that no major U.S. sports organization - save MLS - was doing a worse job of delivering the content and experiences that the demographic desires than the NHL, so the formation of the program is a step in the right direction. For it to be more than a publicity stunt though, Beal says the NHL will need to “truly listen to these Gen-Zs, gain an understanding of how to engage them and then follow through on the ideas generated. In an ideal world, every team/market would develop their own incubator.”

Mark Beal - the author of Decoding Gen-Zand an adjunct professor at Rutgers University - has long pounded the pavement urging “leagues and their teams to create a Gen-Z incubator. To bring teenage fans into the fold so they can gain a deeper understanding - beyond the numerical data - of trends occurring in real-time.” Considering that those born between 1995-2010 will account for 40% of all consumer spending by 2020, it's a savvy move by the NHL.

To reach the Gen-Z audience leagues need to be distributing content and programming across the platforms they reside on, but Beal notes that “their media mix is completely different than every generation before - even millennials likely read the newspaper at one time. Whereas past generations looked towards ABC, NBC, CBS, New York Times and USA Today, Gen-Zs are turning to Instagram, YouTube, Spotify, Twitch, Hulu and podcasts. Leagues need to be creating unique content across a wide variety of channels to ensure they reach fans of all ages.”

The formation of an incubator and the implementation of a targeted content strategy will put pro sports leagues well on their way to effectively engaging the young sports fans, but Beal also suggests developing a network of nano influencers; “not celebrities or stars, just individuals with a passion for the sport and a few thousand followers that they have sway over. Gen-Zs tend to pay the closest attention to their friends and individuals with followings of 1,000 or 2,000.”

Fan Marino: NBCUniversal’s TAD metric accounts for fans tuning in across NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, USA Network, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports mobile application. While the NHL managed to show a marginal increase in viewership in the face of “changing consumption patterns and cord cutting” (see: AT&T lost 544K TV subs, 83K OTT subs in Q1), the same can’t be said for the NBA; regular season ratings declined -12% YoY on TNT (they were flat on ESPN and ABC) and playoff viewership is down -19% YoY (through April 25).

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