LeBron James, NBA Ratings Juggernaut May Be One Foe Not Even the Kings and Devils Combined Can Beat

LeBron James, NBA Ratings Juggernaut May Be One Foe Not Even the Kings and Devils Combined Can BeatCeltics fans weren’t the only ones cursing LeBron James on Thursday night.

Miami’s win at the Garden caused nearly as much anguish in New York as it did in Boston, as the reality that the Los Angeles Kings’ next chance to claim the franchise’s first Cup would have to go up against a Game 7 showdown between the Heat and the Celtics surely made the NHL and NBC headquarters in Gotham very somber places.

The Kings may beg to differ, but as far as the ratings are concerned, this year’s Stanley Cup Final has featured one bad break after another for the NHL. The dreams of getting the Big Apple’s marquee team in the ultimate spotlight were dashed by the Devils when New Jersey knocked off the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. Goals have been in short supply in the first four games, and the bad blood that made last year’s Final between the Bruins and Canucks so captivating has been conspicuously absent in this series.

There’s been plenty for the hardcore hockey fan to appreciate with Jonathan Quick‘s sublime netminding, Martin Brodeur continuing to defy the aging process, the Kings’ relentless attack and the refreshing sight of a Devils squad that actually plays an aggressive offensive style after so many years of trapping. But for the casual sports fans who may usually be lured in to watch the culmination of the quest for hockey’s greatest prize, this series has lacked that crossover appeal.

It’s a stark contrast to the last four years, when just about everything broke right for NHL marketers when it came to drawing eyeballs to the quest for the game’s ultimate prize.

The previous four Stanley Cup Finals have featured marquee stars like Sidney Crosby and storied franchises like the Red Wings, Blackhawks and Bruins, not to mention some compelling storylines ready-made for prime time with Chicago and Boston looking to end decades-long championship droughts. And the ratings soared to record highs over those last four years.

This year, the hockey gods haven’t been able to wield such power over the Nielsen ratings. And the biggest challenge may come in what could be the final game of the season on Saturday. The Kings can bring the first NHL title to Tinseltown with a win in Game 5 in New Jersey, but most of the sporting world will be tuned into the drama unfolding in Miami, where Boston’s latest Big Three may be playing their final game together and James will have a chance to finally shed his label as a choker in big games.

It’s a tough way to potentially close out a playoff run that began so promisingly. The NHL enjoyed record ratings in first two rounds, up 23 percent from last year with 39 million total viewers. Much of that may have been due to the mayhem unleashed in those early series, particularly in the opening round clash between Keystone State rivals Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Last year’s hit-, punch- and bite-filled showdown between Boston and Vancouver notwithstanding, things generally calm down as the stakes are raised in the later rounds of the playoffs. That’s where having a marquee draw like Crosby or a big-market team with a fervent fan base like Chicago or Boston can keep up interest and viewership.

It also helps that the Cup Finals aren’t normally going up against the NBA. Usually the NBA Finals are at the same time as Cup Final, allowing the leagues to alternate nights and not go head-to-head. But with the NBA lockout this year, the playoffs started later and that league’s conference finals were still going on during the Cup Final, leaving hockey to go up against a high-profile NBA game every night

The NHL caught a bit of a break with the West Final between smaller-market clubs in San Antonio and Oklahoma City scheduled opposite the majority of the Cup games, with Game 1 the only time the NHL went directly opposite the Heat and Celtics juggernaut. According to the numbers posted at SportsMediaWatch.com, that opening game of the Cup Final drew a 1.8 rating on NBC with 2.9 million viewers. The Heat and Celtics were watched by 8.8 million even though that game was broadcast on ESPN. Even the home markets of the Cup teams couldn’t beat the NBA, with the Heat-Celtics drawing a 7.4 rating in New York and a 6.1 in L.A. compared to a 5.1 and 4.2 for the Cup opener in those respective markets.

Even against the West on Wednesday, Game 4 of the Cup drew just 2.069 million viewers compared to the 9.5 million who tuned in to see the Thunder close out Tim Duncan and the Spurs. That followed a Game 3 in L.A. that drew just 1.743 million viewers, the lowest numbers for a Cup Final game since the 2007 series between Ottawa and Anaheim.

Now the NHL may have to close the curtain on its season by going up against the Celtics and Heat in a do-or-die Game 7. That’s hardly a fair fight. Hockey fans love a good underdog story, but it’s not quite as compelling when the real struggle is being waged on Nielsen boxes instead of on the ice.

Have a question for Douglas Flynn? Send it to him via Twitter at @douglasflynn or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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