SBJ/June 18 - 24, 2001/This Weeks Issue

Stanley Cup ratings go cold

A seven-game series between the teams with the best two regular-season records, along with the ultimate sports feel-good story in veteran Ray Bourque's quest for the Stanley Cup, did not lead to growth in television ratings for the NHL, as ABC's average ratings for the finals dropped 11 percent from a 3.7 to a 3.3.

The ratings were helped by the series going seven games, compared with six games last year. The final game posted a series-high 4.2, equal to 4,268,000 television households. It beat NBC's Saturday night movie June 9.

But Game 7 still ranked as only the 66th-rated prime-time program for the week of June 4-10. Game 5, which posted a 3.1, was ahead of only four other prime-time programs for the week on ABC, NBC and CBS.

The Stanley Cup Finals telecasts held their own in the male 18- to 34-year-old demographic group, a key target audience for advertisers that league officials often point to as the true measure for NHL hockey. Across both ABC and ESPN, ratings for that group inched up in the single digits.

Regarding the overall ratings, "I think they're good numbers for hockey, but marginal in the scheme of what ABC has to deliver," said Mike Trager, president of SFX Television Group.

By contrast, the first three games of the NBA Finals were the three highest-rated television shows of the week.

"Luckily for the NHL," Trager added, "this is a time of year when you can put low-rated programming in and not have a dramatic effect, because ratings are so low across the board this time of year."

Last season's Stanley Cup ratings were difficult to equal because two games went into multiple overtime periods in 2000, with ratings increasing by the hour. Prime-time ratings this year were identical to the year before. But the five games that aired on ABC this season also posted lower ratings than the three Stanley Cup Finals games shown on Fox in 1999, which averaged a 3.4.

ESPN also showed declines during this year's playoffs, down 12 percent for the 36 games it aired in total, to a 0.98. But the drop was negligible for the two Stanley Cup Finals it aired, a 1.91 compared with a 1.96 last year, and ratings for 24 early round games that aired on ESPN2 were up 4 percent.

An ESPN programming executive said NHL ratings were in line with expectations.

"When we look at the last barometer, the conference finals, we were even with last year despite both series only going five games," said Mark Quenzel, senior vice president of programming at ESPN. "In the early rounds, you suffer a little when good teams lose early. Detroit [which was upset in the first round by the Los Angeles Kings] traditionally gets the highest ratings for us."

He said the key to growing NHL ratings is showing games in consistent time slots.

To that end, ESPN will air regular-season NHL games mostly on Wednesday nights next season, a winter complement to ESPN's Wednesday night baseball coverage, he said. But for the playoffs, Quenzel said it's a question of building an audience that has a keen interest in the teams and players who are competing, a process that takes time and substantial effort.

"I do think there's room for significant ratings growth long term. But it's a battle. We need to have more teams and more players that are recognizable going in."

Bourque, who hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time after 22 years as one of the NHL's best defensemen, was a focal point of the ABC broadcasts, but his story never quite sizzled its way off the sports pages.

"It was a great emotional story, but I bet if Ray Bourque walks down the street today, most people aren't going to recognize him," Trager said.

ABC (Games 3-7)*
ESPN (Games 1-2)
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Men 18-34
* ABC broadcast Games 3 through 6 in 2000.
Sources: ABC, ESPN
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