More than 22 million Canadians tuned in as Sidney Crosby scored the “Golden Goal” at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Just seven years later and it is already cemented as a legendary moment in hockey history.
The game was not only a big win for Canada, which captured the Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey, but also for the Rogers-CTV broadcast consortium. With an average viewership of 16.6 million people, and some 26.5 million Canadians (80 per cent of the country’s population) watching at some point — the game set all-time records.
While the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea were likely never in a position to challenge those highs, the recent decision by the NHL to keep its players on the sidelines could put a serious dent in the aspirations of Canadian broadcasters.
Three years ago, the CBC spearheaded a bid, along with Rogers and Bell, to acquire the rights to the Olympic Games in 2018 and 2020.
Norm O’Reilly, a professor of sports administration at the Ohio State University and author of a 2015 paper on the impact of hockey in Canada, tells Yahoo Canada Finance that the broadcasters could take a “huge hit” from the absence of household names such as Crosby, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
“I think it’s safe to say they’re very concerned and the expectations would be lower ratings,” he says.
However, O’Reilly admits that there are many variables at play that could affect viewership.
He acknowledges that even if the NHL allowed its top talent to lace up their skates for the Games, if Canada was knocked out prior to the medal rounds, broadcasters would be facing a similar struggle to attract an audience.
The Pyeongchang Games present further hurdles, such as the double-digit time difference, the lack of a natural local narrative like defending home soil in Vancouver or facing off against a traditional rival, and winning fatigue as Canada goes for its third-straight gold.
“A lot of it is still contingent on how well Canada does, how well the U.S. does (and) if there are any great stories like: are the Russian NHL players going to play? Maybe the next Connor McDavid lights it up,” notes O’Reilly.
“But I think it’s pretty safe to say there will be a decreased interest in the general entertainment consumer. Your hockey fan is still going to watch. Your passionate Canadian fan is still going to watch … if there’s a run for a gold medal (but) you’re probably not going to see those (22) million (viewers) that we saw in Vancouver.”
With a time difference of 10 hours in Vancouver and seven hours in Toronto, the Sochi Olympic hockey men’s final between Canada and Sweden on CBC averaged 8.5 million viewers, just over half of the audience of the gold-medal-deciding game four years earlier.
O’Reilly says the ratings should still be very good, as they were still strong prior to the NHL’s involvement beginning at 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
He points to the World Juniors championship, which averaged 5.2 million viewers on TSN and RDS during the final in January, and women’s Olympic hockey, which attracted an average of 4 million viewers during the gold medal game in Sochi, as more realistic comparisons.
However, O’Reilly adds that’s there’s always the potential for a good storyline to captivate Canadians.
He notes that the “Miracle on Ice” bronze medal match at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, which didn’t feature any NHLers, remains the most-watched hockey game in the U.S.
The lack of NHL star power at Pyeongchang could also hinder CBC, Rogers and Bell as they negotiate advertising rates for the Games.
“(There) won’t be the same degree of interest,” Glen Hodgson, senior fellow at the Conference Board of Canada, told Yahoo Canada Finance.
“And that would presumably affect the price point.”
The CBC said ad sales haven’t started, but the public broadcaster planned for the possibility that NHL players might not be participating.
“Canadians have tuned in – in record numbers – to CBC’s Olympic coverage (on all of our platforms) over many Olympics and we don’t expect that trend to change with the upcoming Games,” Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs at CBC English Services, said in an email.
“While we are disappointed NHL players won’t be part of our coverage of Pyeongchang 2018, we know Canadians are passionate about hockey at all levels of the game. We see it every year with the World Juniors, the Spengler Cup and women’s hockey, so we’re confident they will rally behind whoever represents Canada.”