Pens will get idea of national following as playoffs start Wednesday night
With proven popularity in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will discover their national appeal in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Game 1 of their best-of-seven, first-round series against the New York Islanders opens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the Chicago Blackhawks tops in the Western, likely making network executives salivate over the possibility of pitting two teams with strong hockey followings against each other in the Stanley Cup Final.
The eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings defeated the No. 6 New Jersey Devils last year in a Final that drew an average 3.0 rating over six games, a 33 percent decrease from 2011 and a five-year low.
“Ratings, I don't worry about right now,” said Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports Group, which owns exclusive rights starting in the second round. “It's a long playoff. You've got to see how it ends up. You know your Stanley Cup Final — if it's a Chicago-Pittsburgh final, that's a different number than a Montreal-Vancouver final. But that's just common sense.”
The Penguins' success this season defied logic, given that a lockout shortened the National Hockey League season from 82 to 48 games starting in January. The club endured an injury-riddled season that sidelined stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang for extended periods.
In regional television ratings, the Penguins led all U.S.-based NHL teams for the second consecutive season and topped every team in Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.
Their average 12.66 rating is the highest in the three professional sports leagues in six years, since the World Series champion Boston Red Sox drew a 12.20 in 2007, and the best since '02.
Technological improvements, particularly high-definition television, have helped attract a wider audience.
“I think the magic of HDTV benefits hockey more than any other sport,” said Lynn Lashbrook, president and founder of Portland-based Sports Management World Wide. “You add all the other variables, and it's the perfect storm of success.”
The Penguins are enjoying a six-year sellout streak to a season-ticket waiting list of 9,000.
The club's popularity is reflected in NHL-leading merchandise sales and social media followers, and now record ratings.
“We kind of know anecdotally that more and more people are becoming fans, but that's just a validation of that,” Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said.
Though viewership went flat or decreased late in the season in many markets, it increased for the Penguins during one that included a 15-game winning streak and trade-deadline deals that brought captains Brenden Morrow from Dallas and Jarome Iginla from Calgary.
The Penguins enjoyed 16 of their top 20 highest-rated games of all time on ROOT Sports Pittsburgh, the top two happening amid the winning streak.
The Pens drew a 16.5 rating for their 2-1 overtime victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on March 24, overtaking the 15.9 for Mario Lemieux's comeback game in December 2000.
On March 30, they drew a 16.56 rating for their 15th-consecutive victory, a 2-0 win over the Isles with Iginla's debut.
“This wasn't just a one-game blip. It was a very consistent high-12 rating all year long,” ROOT Sports senior vice president and general manager Shawn McClintock said. “To top it off, Mario's record went down. The record stood for 13 years, then sat for six days.”
Fans not only watched, they wore their colors in record fashion. Morehouse said the Penguins sold more merchandise through the first four games, at 50 percent discount, than they did during the entire 2011-12 season.
“Hockey fans are the most forgiving in the world, so I wasn't shocked by the rebound after the lockout,” Lashbrook said. “Pittsburgh is such a great sports community, and they've got a great product.”