SBJ/December 25 - 31, 2006/This Weeks News

After post-lockout bounce, NHL ratings slip

As more than a dozen patrons at the Station Grill in Washington, D.C., picked over french fries and drank beer on Dec. 11, images of the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams “Monday Night Football” game played on the television behind the bar.

Just seven blocks away, the Washington Capitals were trying to hold onto a 4-0 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in one of the most heavily promoted games of the NHL season. Though the game was the first nationally televised meeting between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, two of the NHL’s brightest young players, no one at the bar wanted to see it.

A marquee matchup in D.C.
drew a 0.2 rating nationally.

The game earned a 0.6 Nielsen rating in Washington, D.C., tying the team’s highest rating from a year ago, but nationally, it earned only a 0.2, and the matchup of two of the league’s most marketable young players was topped the following night with a 0.3 rating for a Buffalo Sabres- with a 0.3 rating for a Buffalo Sabres-New Jersey Devils game.

The game highlights hockey’s struggles on television this season. A year after the lockout, Nielsen ratings on Versus remain flat, while 15 of 24 U.S.-based teams have seen double-digit declines in their regional ratings. Five of those teams’ local ratings have fallen by 40 percent or more.

League and network executives attribute those declines to pent-up demand for hockey last year following the lockout, which led to higher-than-average numbers. Since then, the league contends, ratings have returned to their pre-lockout levels.

“We don’t view it as a fall-off from where we’ve been traditionally,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “Does it have to grow more? Yes, but we’re not in damage control mode now.”

The NHL’s ratings have returned to the levels they posted three years ago, which is where Jeff Shell, the president of Comcast’s programming group, expected them to be. Last year’s ratings were better than anticipated, and the networks have seen them return to previous levels this season, he said.

“I’m very happy with the ratings performance so far,” said Shell, who oversees Versus and six regional sports networks.

When compared with the 2003-04 regional numbers, 11 U.S. teams are seeing a drop in ratings, and the average regional rating since that period is down 10 percent, from a 1.34 to a 1.21.

Ratings have also dropped in Canada, where the return of hockey last year fueled record household viewership for both TSN and CBC. TSN viewership is down 29 percent from last year, while CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” is down 27 percent. Compared with 2003-04, TSN is up 28 percent this season, while CBC is down 3 percent.

“Canadian ratings are down,” Daly said, “but that’s not a concern. There’s a high appetite for the sport there.”

Despite increasing its distribution by 8 million homes, improving its production and adding an exclusive night of games, ratings on Versus (formerly OLN) remain stagnant at a 0.2 average this season but have seen a 2.3 percent increase in households, averaging 154,037. Since acquiring the rights last season, Versus consistently has pointed to its exclusive playoff coverage as the games that really count. Last year, average ratings jumped from a 0.2 during the regular season to a 0.4 during the playoffs.

When struggles on national TV have been highlighted in the past, the league has pointed to local ratings as a strength, but those numbers appear to be fading as well. No fall in regional ratings has been more dramatic than in Detroit, where the Red Wings’ ratings have fallen by 44 percent since last year and 54 percent since 2003-04.

Sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference, the team remains competitive but struggles to attract viewers. Greg Hammaren, general manager of FSN Detroit, attributed the decline to a mix of issues, including the Detroit Tigers’ postseason success in October, turnover on the Red Wings’ roster and the NHL schedule.

“Having ‘Original Six’ teams visit once every three years is ridiculous,” Hammaren said. “Beyond that, the NHL in general struggles to market itself well. No one has found the perfect answer and we haven’t either, but we’re trying.”

Some teams have taken a proactive approach to their ratings slide. Nashville, which has seen a 40 percent decline in ratings this year, will offer a watch-and-win marketing program during the second half of the season, with giveaways during televised games that include cash, a Zamboni ride and a road trip with the team.

Local ratings remain strong in some markets where team performance has been strong. Anaheim is up 50 percent from last year with a 0.3, and Buffalo is up 21 percent and leading the league with a 5.8 local rating.

For the most part, ad buyers haven’t really noticed this season’s ratings drop off. Hockey has always been a secondary buy to them, which has been the case this season. They will buy into the regular season if they have a client who wants to reach the core hockey fan.

“Ratings are down slightly but nothing to be concerned about,” said Dennis Dinga, vice president and director of broadcast buying with Toronto-based M2 Universal. “It delivers high numbers, especially male skewed.”

The drop in ratings for many teams has meant some regional networks have had to accommodate advertisers with make-good units because of a failure to meet preseason projections. Still, Kyle Sherman, executive vice president for advertising sales at Fox Sports, said hockey remains a strong buy, especially as the second half of the season approaches.

“One could argue maybe (ratings have) given up a little bit this year,” Sherman said, “but I would argue they’re going to come on during the second half of the season. Normally we build throughout that, so once we get beyond college football and NFL football, we’ll do better.”

Research associate Austin Karp contributed to this story.

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