2013-2014 sure didn’t get off to a hot start. CBC and TSN suffered, showing classic games and movies while the lockout dragged on until after Christmas. CBC was averaging around 200, 000 viewers for classic NHL games on Saturday nights in October, only about a tenth of the average for the usual 7:00pm ET Leafs broadcast. When the new season finally began on January 19th most of the lockout talk was forgotten. Now three months later the memory of the lockout is just a distant memory for most fans.
However, for CBC and TSN those were real games and advertising dollars lost. TSN lost out on 40% of its usual number of games featuring a Canadian team, while CBC lost out on about 50% of the Saturdays in a full season. The silver lining for the broadcasters is that four Canadian teams will make the playoffs. This includes the return of the Toronto Maple Leafs, after an almost decade-long absence. The Canadiens also return after missing out last season. Add in playoff fixture Vancouver and in all the three most popular Canadian teams are playing in May. And luckily for them, most advertising dollars are made during the two month playoff run.
When the new NHL television contract took effect for the 2008-09 season TSN picked-up the right to show the third most valuable series in the first round. After showing the Flames in 2009 and setting records with the Canadiens in 2010, TSN hasn’t shown a playoff game involving a Canadian team in the past two years. That possibility was almost unthinkable when the contract was signed. Three or more Canadian teams making the playoffs was much a sure thing as the Leafs failing to win the Cup. It had happened every year since the conference re-alignment in the 1990s, and in fact mostly every year before that as well. Half of NHL teams make the playoffs, so statistically its likely three Canadians teams should as well.
This is the first time all three Canadian teams in the Northeast Division have made the playoffs since the season before the last NHL lockout. That year there were two all-Canadian first round series – Ottawa vs. Toronto and Calgary vs. Vancouver – and the Flames went to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. CBC would love for the Canadian teams to have that kind of success again this year, but even moderate success would be an improvement over last year.
So, how do the playoff matchups look for CBC? If the playoffs started today the Leafs would play the Habs in the first round in their first playoff meeting since 1979. I think this is the best case scenario for CBC. Not only did over three million watch their season-opener in January, but 2.5 million watched the re-match on Hockey Day in Canada in February. Their third meeting on February 27 attracted 1.5 million on TSN (and almost another million on RDS), the most-watched regular season game on TSN since 2005. Most recently they played on April 7, averaging over 2 million viewers on CBC. That’s an average of 2.3 million viewers on English-language TV. It wouldn’t surprise me if every game in a Leafs-Habs series hit 3 million viewers, with the series climbing to 4 or even 5 million for Saturday night and/or elimination games.
With their second pick, CBC will likely take the Canucks. They will finish third in the west and could play St. Louis, San Jose or Los Angeles. Regardless of who they play the Canucks are a ratings-earner in the playoffs, averaging 2.4 million for their 5 game series with the Kings last year. That would leave TSN with the Senators for the third pick. The Senators are clearly the least-desirable Canadian team, averaging 2 million viewers for their first round series against the Rangers last year, despite it going 7 games.
There is one unlikely possibility that could result in an interesting twist for CBC and TSN. I say unlikely because it would involve the Senators jumping the Leafs and the Habs staying below the Bruins OR the Habs passing the Bruins and the Senators finishing 7th. I don’t think the first scenario (a 4-5 matchup) is even possible. A 2-7 series is possible, but unlikely, so I won’t spend too much time on it. But if it did happen CBC would have to choose between Habs-Sens and a Canucks series. I think CBC would take the all-Canadiens series, but I’m not sure how much better the ratings would be. And TSN would be extremely happy to get a Canucks series.
That leaves the all-American series. CBC has 4th and 6th choices, while TSN has 5th, 7th and 8th. It probably depends on scheduling, but I think CBC will end up with the Pittsburgh and TSN will get Washington in the east. There are still too many scenarios to play out in the west, but if the Red Wings play the Ducks, I think CBC would try to show it. A Red Wings-Blackhawks series might not work for CBC scheduling-wise, but would probably get good ratings for TSN.
I’ll have more on all of this as information is revealed throughout the weekend.