The Sunday (Feb. 28) afternoon gold medal showdown between the United States and Canada, an overtime thriller, was the most watched hockey game in 30 years.
NBC is saying that an estimated 27.6 million viewers tuned in to watch the American team come back from a 2-0 deficit and equalize with less than a minute to play, only to see Canada win on an OT goal.
That made this the largest audience for a hockey game since the Feb. 24, 1980 gold medal game between the United States and Finland, which averaged 32.8 million. The famous Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviets two days earlier remains the most watched hockey game of all-time in this country, averaging 34.2 million viewers.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a front-row seat to observe a nation of fans that appreciates winter sports, is proud of their winter sport heritage and celebrates success — no matter which country wins — so it was only fitting yesterday when Sidney Crosby scored the goal to give Canadians the gold that meant so much to this country,” states Dick Ebersol, Chairman, NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. “‘O Canada’ will never be the same.”
The hockey game was such a big deal that NBC even decided to air it live for West Coast viewers, who have been shafted with tape delays through most of the Vancouver Olympics. [Then again, the Miracle on Ice game aired on tape delay for the entire country.]
While hockey usually takes the back seat to the other three major sports, Sunday’s game drew more viewers than any game of the 2009 World Series (which peaked at 22.8 million) or any game of the 2009 NBC Finals (which peaked at 16.0 million), to say nothing of other marquee events like the Daytona 500, the Masters or even the Grammys.
In comparison, the 2010 gold medal game was up 61 percent from a similar USA-Canada gold medal battle at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
It should come as no surprise that the game performed best in cold-weather NHL markets including Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Minneapolis. Then again, the telecast’s No. 11 market was West Palm Beach, while No. 24 was Austin, Texas, suggesting that hockey fever was, for a couple hours at least, sweeping the nation.