SBJ/January 29 - February 4, 2007/This Weeks News

Overall ratings drop doesn’t worry RSNs

An overall ratings drop among many regional sports networks last year is not a cause for concern, say executives at the networks and in the advertising community.

NESN’s broadcasts of the Red Sox
earned the highest MLB ratings

Half of the 10 top-rated RSNs saw their ratings decline or remain flat last year, but the main reason network executives aren’t concerned is the four-year ratings trend that has pushed regional network ratings to record highs. Eight of the 10 top-rated RSNs have seen their ratings increase from 2003.

“It’s the first time in six or seven years that we haven’t seen overall increases for baseball, hockey and basketball,” said Randy Freer, president of the Fox Regional Cable Sports Networks. “It’s something that we are watching, but I can’t say that we’re overly concerned at this point.”

Top ad buyers aren’t on alert, either. “RSNs are really where local sports fans watch sports,” said Tom McGovern, OMD director of sports media. “Local fan bases still tune in.”

Declining ratings generally push down ad rates, but ad revenue remains strong at the regional level. Comcast SportsNet weathers lean years by signing long-term deals. “It’s not unusual to have three- to five-year deals,” said Comcast SportsNet CEO Jack Williams. “Sponsors like to be identified with the local team.”

YES Network has seen its ad sales rise for several years because advertisers want to attach to identifiable brands, such as local sports teams. “There’s a lot of advertisers and cable operators who are looking for services who can deliver a critical mass,” said YES Network CEO Tracy Dolgin.

Fueled by the passionate six-state fan base of the Boston Red Sox, New England Sports Network remained the RSN ratings champ last year, delivering a 3.4 prime-time rating and averaging 80,000 homes, numbers that often beat all its competition. “We had 83 nights last year when we won prime for the entire region, broadcast and cable,” said NESN President Sean McGrail.

The Tigers were up a whopping
184 percent on FSN Detroit

Among the prime-time ratings highlights (see charts): The biggest success story was the first year of the New York Mets’ RSN, SportsNet New York. FSN Detroit, driven by the success of the Tigers, posted numbers 53 percent higher than 2005. The biggest drop was registered by Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, which was in the final year of a deal to air games from a 70-win Baltimore Orioles team and competed directly with Washington Nationals coverage on MASN.

This year, CSN Mid-Atlantic will not have rights to any baseball; both the Orioles and Nationals will be on MASN. Williams said he still is fine-tuning his summer programming plans, and expects to cover the Washington Redskins training camp more extensively. Comcast SportsNet has a marketing relationship with the Redskins.

RSN executives point to an easy formula to determine ratings: If their teams are good, ratings go up; and if the teams are bad, the ratings drop.

Last year, for example, RSNs in MLB’s American League markets were hurt by the Red Sox’s collapse late in the season. “If the Red Sox come into town in September, and they’re out of the race, that’s going to affect RSNs in AL markets,” Dolgin said.

Then there are the clubs that won last year, but that don’t have much of a national following. The San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers, for example, put together winning seasons for the first time in many years. “Those clubs being good are good for their own RSNs, but that doesn’t help other RSNs,” Dolgin said. “If less RSNs [had ratings increases], it’s because of the teams that happened to win last year.”

While live games are the programming driver, RSNs are tinkering with their ancillary programming to expand viewership. Both Freer and Williams spoke of “extending live games” through pre- and postgame shows.

Freer also said he’s been searching for nonprofessional “event” programming, such as high school or college games. “You try to find as many events as you can that might make a difference,” Freer said.


MLB TEAM RATINGS - Ranked by 2006 in-market rating

2006 rank
Network
Team*
No. of games
2006 rating
Avg. households (000s)
Change in HHs vs 2005
Change in HHs vs 2003
1 NESN Red Sox
150
10.6
252
-10.4%
35.1%
2 FSN Northwest Mariners
108
8.9
101
-4.8%
-22.6%
3 FSN Midwest Cardinals
107
8.6
105
-6.7%
13.1%
4 FSN Detroit Tigers
112
7.1
138
92.0%
184.1%
5 FSN North Twins
119
6.7
110
-0.2%
36.3%
6 Cox Channel 4 Padres
140
6.5
66
-2.1%
56.9%
7 FSN Ohio Reds
115
5.5
48
29.7%
19.9%
8 Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia Phillies
93
4.8
139
16.1%
37.7%
9 FSN South Braves
25
4.4
93
-23.1%
-24.0%
10 YES Yankees
126
4.3
317
-5.1%
32.8%
11 Turner South Braves
54
4.1
87
-31.1%
NA
12t FSN Pittsburgh Pirates
118
4.0
47
-11.1%
-9.1%
12t FSN Arizona Diamondbacks
70
4.0
67
-13.6%
-46.8%
14 SportsTime Ohio Indians
130
3.8
59
-42.6%
-20.8%
15 FSN Southwest Astros
130
3.6
71
-8.4%
-11.9%
16 Comcast SportsNet Chicago White Sox
95
3.1
106
19.7%
15.2%
17t SportsNet New York Mets
124
2.9
211
87.2%
52.9%
17t FSN North Brewers
123
2.9
26
-33.2%
38.4%
17t FSN Florida Marlins
149
2.9
44
-32.0%
-21.5%
17t Comcast SportsNet Chicago Cubs
72
2.9
99
-24.6%
-40.7%
21t Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic Orioles
83
2.8
31
-30.3%
15.4%
21t FSN Rocky Mountain Rockies
126
2.8
40
69.7%
-3.4%
21t FSN Bay Area Giants
97
2.8
66
3.9%
-54.0%
24t FSN West Angels
100
1.7
91
-3.3%
23.1%
24t FSN Prime Ticket Dodgers
101
1.7
96
32.4%
14.5%
24t FSN Southwest Rangers
81
1.7
40
-31.8%
-18.7%
27t FSN Florida Devil Rays
77
1.6
28
6.2%
35.5%
27t FSN Bay Area A’s
73
1.6
37
-5.6%
-40.0%
* Data not available for the Blue Jays, Royals and Nationals.

Prime-time ratings on RSNs - Ranked by 2006 in-market rating

2006 rank
Network
Market
2003
Rating
2003 Avg. households (000s)
2006
Rating
2006 Avg. households (000s)
Change in HHs vs 2005
Change in HHs vs 2003
1 NESN Boston
2.0
47
3.4
80
14.3%
70.2%
2 FSN Detroit Detroit
1.5
28
2.4
46
53.3%
64.3%
3 FSN Midwest St. Louis
1.8
21
2.0
25
-3.8%
19.0%
4 FSN North Minnesota
1.3
21
1.9
32
10.3%
52.4%
5 Cox Channel 4 San Diego
1.1
11
1.6
17
-5.6%
54.5%
6 Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia Philadelphia
1.6
45
1.5
45
0.0%
0.0%
7 FSN Northwest Seattle
2.1
35
1.5
25
-16.7%
-28.6%
8 FSN Ohio Cincinnati
1.0
9
1.2
11
37.5%
22.2%
9 YES New York
0.8
57
1.1
81
-5.8%
42.1%
10 FSN Southwest Houston
0.9
16
1.1
21
31.3%
31.3%
11 Comcast SportsNet Chicago Chicago
1.1
37
1.0
35
NA
-5.4%
12t FSN North Milwaukee
0.6
5
0.9
8
-27.3%
60.0%
12t FSN Arizona Phoenix
1.0
15
0.9
16
-5.9%
6.7%
12t FSN Pittsburgh Pittsburgh
1.0
15
0.9
16
-5.9%
6.7%
12t FSN Bay Area San Francisco
1.4
34
0.9
20
-4.8%
-41.2%
16t Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic Baltimore
NA
NA
0.7
2
-81.8%
NA
16t SportsNet New York New York
0.5
33
0.7
54
134.8%
63.6%
16t FSN Florida Miami
0.9
13
0.7
11
-15.4%
-15.4%
16t SportSouth Atlanta
1.0
20
0.7
15
-31.8%
-25.0%
20t FSN West Los Angeles
0.8
43
0.6
38
18.8%
-11.6%
20t FSN Rocky Mountain Denver
1.0
14
0.6
11
37.5%
-21.4%
20t FSN Southwest Dallas
0.9
20
0.6
15
-11.8%
-25.0%
23 FSN Prime Ticket Los Angeles
0.4
21
0.5
28
16.7%
33.3%
24 FSN South Atlanta
0.7
14
0.4
9
-18.2%
-35.7%
25 FSN Florida Tampa
NA
NA
0.3
5
-16.7%
NA
NA: Not available
Note: Turner South was rebranded SportSouth in October 2006
Source: SBJ research
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