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Pittsburgh is once again on top in the local TV ratings race among NHL clubs.
Penguins games on Root Sports were averaging a 7.67 rating this season for the team’s games played prior to the Olympic break. It’s an average that’s tops in the league by far and puts the Penguins on pace to have the NHL’s highest local rating for the fifth straight season, as the team completes another strong campaign on the ice, as well.
Pittsburgh’s ratings on Root Sports match its success on the ice.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
While the 7.67 average is down from Pittsburgh’s record-setting 12.56 average set during last year’s lockout-shortened season, it’s up 1 percent from the comparable number of games played by the team in the 2011-12 season, the NHL’s last full season.
Typically, ratings rise substantially during a condensed season, such as the NHL’s last year.
The league’s biggest average local TV audience for games has come in Chicago, where Blackhawks games are averaging a league-high 159,000 homes this season. In the 2007-08 season, when CSN Chicago did not carry any of the team’s home games, the Blackhawks averaged just 22,000 homes.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota Wild games on FS North are averaging a 2.98 rating, which marks the team’s highest local rating since the 2008-09 season.
On the other side of the coin, the New Jersey Devils are averaging their lowest local TV rating since the 2005-06 season. The team’s 0.16 rating at the break is the NHL’s lowest so far this season.
Miami continues to be an abysmal TV market for the NHL. The Florida Panthers went into the break tied for the third-lowest point total leaguewide on the ice, and the team’s TV audiences have been similarly small. An average of only 4,000 homes are watching Panthers games on FS Florida this season. That’s a number that’s stayed consistently low since the 2008-09 season and is at the bottom among all teams locally across not only the NHL but also the NBA and MLB, according to SportsBusinsess Journal research.
Columbus also is proving to be a tough TV market, despite the local team being in the playoff hunt. Blue Jackets games on FS Ohio are averaging only 6,000 fans per game in the Columbus market.
It’s been a down year in Philadelphia as well, where a poor start on the ice for the Flyers cost coach Peter Laviolette his job. The team has rebounded in the standings, but the 1.89 average rating for Flyers games on CSN Philadelphia is still down 43 percent from the same point in 2011-12. Flyers telecasts also have dropped an average of 44,000 homes per game since that season.
Team RSN Avg. rating (change*) Pittsburgh Penguins Root Sports 7.67 (+1.3%) Buffalo Sabres MSG 5.45 (-14.7%) Boston Bruins NESN 5.06 (+2.0%) Chicago Blackhawks CSN Chicago 4.49 (+41.6%) St. Louis Blues FS Midwest 3.95 (+23.1%)
Team RSN Avg. rating (change*) New York Islanders MSG+ 0.41 (+95.2%) Los Angeles Kings FS West 0.37 (+8.8%) Florida Panthers FS Florida 0.24 (+14.3%) Anaheim Ducks Prime Ticket 0.23 (-23.3%) New Jersey Devils MSG+ 0.16 (-44.8%)
Team RSN Change* (avg. rating) Phoenix Coyotes FS Arizona +115.2% (0.71) New York Islanders MSG+ +95.2% (0.41) Chicago Blackhawks CSN Chicago +41.6% (4.49) New York Rangers MSG +37.8% (1.24) Dallas Stars FS Southwest +37.7% (0.73)
Team RSN Change* (avg. rating) Anaheim Ducks Prime Ticket 23.3% (0.23) San Jose Sharks CSN California 23.7% (1.00) Columbus Blue Jackets FS Ohio 32.0% (0.68) Philadelphia Flyers CSN Philadelphia 43.4% (1.89) New Jersey Devils MSG 44.8% (0.16)
Avg. Audience Size
Team RSN Avg. no. of HHs (change*) Chicago Blackhawks CSN Chicago 159,000 (+48,000) Boston Bruins NESN 123,000 (+5,000) New York Rangers MSG 93,000 (+27,000) Pittsburgh Penguins Root Sports 91,000 (+2,000) Detroit Red Wings FS Detroit 63,000 (-2,000)
Team RSN Avg. no. of HHs (change*) Phoenix Coyotes FS Arizona 13,000 (+7,000) Anaheim Ducks Prime Ticket 13,000 (-4,000) New Jersey Devils MSG+ 12,000 (-9,000) Columbus Blue Jackets FS Ohio 6,000 (-3,000) Florida Panthers FS Florida 4,000 (+1,000)
AUDIENCE SIZE CHANGE
Team RSN Change* (avg. no. of HHs) Chicago Blackhawks CSN Chicago +48,000 (159,000) New York Rangers MSG +27,000 (93,000) New York Islanders MSG+ +15,000 (31,000) Minnesota Wild FS North +11,000 (52,000) St. Louis Blues FS Midwest +10,000 (50,000)
Team RSN Change* (avg. no. of HHs) Anaheim Ducks Prime Ticket 4,000 (13,000) Buffalo Sabres MSG 6,000 (35,000) San Jose Sharks CSN CA 8,000 (25,000) New Jersey Devils MSG+ 9,000 (12,000) Philadelphia Flyers CSN Philadelphia 44,000 (56,000)
* Change compared to marks posted through each team’s same number of games played in the 2011-12 season, which was the most recent 82-game slate for clubs. In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, teams played 48 games each starting in January instead of the usual 82 games starting in October.
Note: Comparable data for Carolina, Nashville and the league’s seven Canadian teams was not available.
The U.S. men’s hockey team’s shootout win over Russia at the Olympics drew 4.1 million viewers, the biggest audience to watch a hockey game on NBC Sports Network. Four days later, NBC Sports Group set an online record when 798,337 unique users streamed the U.S. team’s win over the Czech Republic, the most for any Olympic event.
Both records were certain to fall again last week, with the U.S. playing Canada in a semifinal game on Friday.
“An NHL ratings bump from the Olympics has never happened before,” said Horizon Media research director Brad Adgate. “They have two different allegiances. The Olympics is event programming: a live sporting event that’s on a global stage with national pride at stake. The NHL hasn’t reached that level yet.”
Four years ago, the U.S.-Canada gold-medal
From Sochi: Olympics writer Tripp Mickle has a fun, irreverent and insightful conversation about the Sochi Games with Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo's Puck Daddy blog
But NHL games on NBC and NBCSN, which was then called Versus, registered only a small subsequent lift — immediately and years later — from those games. The year before the 2010 Olympics, NHL games on NBC during March and April averaged a 0.7 rating; in the months after the Vancouver Games (in March and April 2010) they averaged a 0.8 rating. NBCSN posted similar numbers: In March and April of 2009, NHL games averaged a 0.1 rating; in March and April of 2010, they averaged a 0.2.
Adgate described those ratings increases as relatively insignificant, and some in the ad buying community expected the bump to be much higher at that time after such a popular gold-medal game.
“The feeling is that if the U.S. Olympic team does well, then the NHL does well,” said Jeremy Carey, U.S. director for Optimum Sports. “But that doesn’t always translate. We’re always hopeful that there’s some impact.”
Going into the Sochi Games, NBC had averaged a 1.3 rating and 2.3 million viewers for its five NHL games, and NBCSN had averaged a 0.2 rating and 344,000 viewers for its 54 games. Those numbers include the Winter Classic and several Stadium Series events that earned strong TV ratings.
Insiders will be monitoring the numbers closely to see if the popularity of Olympic hockey will lead to increased ratings. The answer could factor into the league’s thinking on whether it will continue to participate in future Olympic Games. Rumors have persisted this year that these Olympics would be the last ones to include NHL players.
Last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in Sochi that the NHL has not made a decision on the future, but he did point out that the league loses 17 days of being on national and local television because of its Olympics break.
League officials will ask if it makes sense to put their season on hold fif the league does not get a significant ratings bump.
That’s a view that runs counter to prevailing wisdom that believes the combination of the country’s two biggest cable operators would shift too much leverage to Comcast during carriage negotiations.
But several sources who regularly deal with Comcast predict that the creation of such a behemoth will cause Comcast executives to be wary of engaging in public battles over channel pricing for fear that regulators will get involved.
As evidence, these sources point to Comcast’s behavior over the past several years. The company that waged bruising public battles with channels like MLB Network, Big Ten Network and NFL Network quietly has been cutting deals in recent years. Negotiations with ESPN and Fox, in particular, stayed under the radar, with no leaks and no public posturing. Both programmers wound up cutting long-term carriage deals with Comcast.
The SEC Network will be the first big test to see if this theory is on target. The ESPN-owned channel is launching to a slew of Comcast and Time Warner Cable markets in the Southeast this August for an in-market rate of $1.30 per subscriber per month. I would be surprised if either Comcast or Time Warner Cable engages in a public fight over the channel.
Until federal regulators approve it, nobody knows what the merged company will look like or what kind of conditions will be placed on it. Several industry veterans expect some conditions to look similar to when Comcast and Time Warner Cable bought Adelphia in 2006. Regulators at that time mandated that federal mediators solve any carriage disagreements with regional sports networks.
The high price tag on RSNs is sure to be a focus for regulators this time around, as well, which would mitigate the leverage of a distributor with more than 30 million homes.
The aspect of this deal that I will be watching the closest relates to what happens to Time Warner Cable’s sports division, which launched in 2011. When you combine two companies of this size, you’re certain to see some layoffs at the executive level, where jobs are duplicated.
Greg Rigdon runs Comcast’s programming department as executive vice president of content; Melinda Witmer runs Time Warner Cable’s as executive vice president and chief video and content officer. Jon Litner oversees Comcast’s RSNs as president of NBC Sports Group; David Rone oversees Time Warner Cable’s RSNs as president of TWC Sports.
As for Time Warner’s sports channels, they should benefit from the merger, too. In fact, several sources say they wouldn’t be surprised to see Time Warner Cable drop the price of the Dodgers channel in order to get carriage. It has gone to market with a $5 per subscriber per month price tag, a rate that most distributors seem prepared to fight.
But many sources expect that price to come down as the bigger deal winds its way through regulatory hurdles. In the context of a $45 billion merger, the rate paid for the Dodgers network is small change. Carriage battles for a high-priced RSN would not be worth the potential political fallout.
Another aspect of this merger that is worth watching involves how such a big distributor deals with smaller, independent networks.
“It cuts both ways,” said Randy Brown, executive vice president of distribution for One World Sports, which does not have a deal with either Comcast or Time Warner Cable. “Combining the top two cable operators could be a really efficient way to scale our business. But not being in business with a 30 million-household distributor puts pressure on cutting deals with everyone else.”
Perhaps the biggest winner from this merger will be professional sports teams, which are expecting the merger to create even more competition for local sports rights. Comcast and Time Warner Cable already are big players for local rights in markets where they operate cable systems. Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, believes the combined might of the new company will make them even stronger, potentially causing rights fees, which already are at historically high levels, to grow even further.
“One of the biggest competitions in media over the past 20 years has been between Fox and Comcast in the local sports market,” Berke said. “Overall, this deal is going to increase competition for Fox, and more competition means increased rights fees and revenue for teams.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.