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NHL dream: Big market team vs. Bigger market team

Larry David gawked in disbelief from a few rows behind the playing surface. Will Ferrell donned an ill-fitting jersey and Jon Hamm stood transfixed, eyes wide behind a cup of beer.

Celebrities enjoyed a June championship series in Los Angeles' Staples Center on Wednesday night, but Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, for once, didn't play. Instead, L.A.'s stars took in the second-most watched hockey game ever, as the Los Angeles Kings pulled out a win for a 1-0 lead over the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Mike Richards #10 of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates the game-winning goal by Justin Williams as the Kings defeated the Rangers 3-2 in Game One of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Staples Center on June 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
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Mike Richards #10 of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates the game-winning goal by Justin Williams as the Kings defeated the Rangers 3-2 in Game One of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Staples Center on June 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

The Kings and their star-studded fan base prepare to meet the Rangers and their equally famous fans in Game 2 on Saturday night. In a rare championship matchup of teams from the United States' two largest media markets, the NHL looks to cash in on a unique combination of exposure and interest.

"You've got the perfect recipe right now with two big markets that increase your reach," said Jon Last, president of Sports and Leisure Research.

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New York and Los Angeles teams (including those from the cities' greater metropolitan areas) have competed head-to-head for a championship only 10 times in the four major American sports before this year. So far, the cities have played to a 5-5 tie.

New York vs. Los Angeles major sports championships

Year Sport Result Series MVP
1963 Baseball Dodgers over Yankees (4-0) Sandy Koufax
1970 Basketball Knicks over Lakers (4-3) Willis Reed
1972 Basketball Lakers over Knicks (4-1) Wilt Chamberlain
1973 Basketball Knicks over Lakers (4-1) Willis Reed
1977 Baseball Yankees over Dodgers (4-2) Reggie Jackson
1978 Baseball Yankees over Dodgers (4-2) Bucky Dent
1981 Baseball Dodgers over Yankees (4-2) Ron Cey
*2002 Basketball Lakers over Nets (4-0) Shaquille O'Neal
*2003 Hockey Devils over Ducks (4-3) Jean-Sebastien Giguere
*2012 Hockey Kings over Devils (4-2) Jonathan Quick
2014 Hockey TBD TBD
Source: Sports Reference

(*denotes that a team in the cities' greater metropolitan areas competed)

The market size and reach of the teams have allowed the NHL to cultivate the sport's already growing popularity, Last said. According to Sports and Leisure's annual study of sports fans, the NHL for the first time this year drew even with the NBA in fans who follow the sport "closely."

Twenty-nine percent said they followed hockey closely. While it doesn't measure up to the 88 percent for the NFL, it shows an expanding sport, he said.

Both the Kings and Rangers have established a top 10 NHL fan base nationally. The Rangers sit in the top five, said Guy Port, vice president of sales at Repucom, citing the company's national fan-tracking report.

While success plays a role in the teams' popularity — Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup in 2012 — the massive markets in which they play help.

Television ratings for Game 1 only fell short of the Chicago Blackhawks' triple overtime win in last year's finals, Last said. If the uptick in viewership continues, it could lead to piles of cash in ad sales.

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"Obviously, if you get a high rating, you can increase your ad revenue," Last said.

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