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Volume 20 No. 42


Editor's note: This story is updated from the print edition.

Just as the NBA’s ratings shot up during its shortened season last year, the NHL is seeing similar gains across its U.S. networks — both national and local.

Twenty-one of the 22 U.S.-based teams for which SportsBusiness Journal obtained ratings information have posted increases so far this season compared to the comparable number of games last year, not through the same point of the season. Nationally, NBC Sports Network is on pace to set its record-high viewership for its NHL games. It is averaging 448,000 viewers through 27 NHL games this season. Its previous high was two years ago when it averaged 348,000 viewers during the 2010-11 season.

The ratings renaissance around the shortened season mirrors the NBA’s performance last season. During the NBA’s shortened 2012-13 season, combined local RSN ratings jumped 18 percent, with 15 of 27 U.S.-based teams showing double digit increases. The NHL is seeing similar enthusiasm.

Pittsburgh Penguins games on Root Sports once again are leading the way for the NHL and represent one of the best marks across all leagues.

The Penguins’ 11.87 local rating is the highest RSN rating for any team in any sport since the Boston Red Sox averaged a 12.2 rating on NESN during its 2007 World Series winning run.

Another good story is in Chicago, where Blackhawks games have averaged a 5.69 rating on Comcast SportsNet Chicago. The Blackhawks have the league’s best record and set an NHL record by going unbeaten through the season’s first 24 games.

Ratings jumps are not just coming from teams that are doing well on the ice. Despite posting the league’s third-worst record as of Thursday, the Sabres have seen a lot of success on television. The team’s 10.13 rating on MSG is second only to the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins.

The Florida Panthers represent the other end of the spectrum. The team has the league’s worst record, and its games post the lowest local TV ratings by far. Panthers games on FS Florida average 4,000 viewers per game. The next lowest is FS Ohio’s Columbus Blue Jackets telecasts, as the team that is battling for a Western Conference playoff spot is averaging 11,000 viewers per game. The Panthers’ 0.24 ratings also is worst; below the Ducks, which average a 0.43 rating on Prime Ticket.

Another problem spot is in Colorado, where the Avalanche have the Western Conference’s worst record and are the only NHL team to show a ratings decline. Its 1.03 rating is down 13 percent from the same number of games last year.

In Canada, Sportsnet holds regional broadcast rights to five of the country’s seven NHL clubs. Four of those teams have seen an increase in viewership through mid-March, according to BBM Canada: Toronto is averaging 860,200 (up 14 percent compared with last season), Edmonton’s average is 265,600 (up 35 percent), Ottawa is averaging 250,100 (up 29 percent) and Calgary’s 208,000 average marks an 8 percent increase. Vancouver has averaged 446,400 viewers on Sportsnet Pacific, down 2 percent from 2011-12.

SportsBusiness Journal analyzed the numbers of 22 U.S.-based clubs. Comparable data for Carolina, Montreal and Winnipeg was not available.

NHL teams’ RSN ratings and audience size at midseason

Top 5
Team RSN Avg. rating (Change*)
Pittsburgh Penguins Root Sports 11.87 (+55.8%)
Buffalo Sabres MSG 10.13 (+17.8%)
Boston Bruins NESN 6.97 (+47.7%)
Chicago Blackhawks CSN Chicago 5.69 (+88.4%)
St. Louis Blues FS Midwest 4.64 (+82.7%)
Bottom 5
Los Angeles Kings FS West 0.63 (+110.0%)
New Jersey Devils MSG+ 0.55 (+205.6%)
New York Islanders MSG+ 0.47 (+147.4%)
Anaheim Ducks Prime Ticket 0.43 (+72.0%)
Florida Panthers FS Florida 0.24 (+20.0%)
Top 5
Team RSN Change in households watching*
Chicago Blackhawks CSN Chicago +92,000
New York Rangers MSG +74,000
Boston Bruins NESN +53,000
Pittsburgh Penguins Root Sports +49,000
Minnesota Wild FS North +33,000
Bottom 5
Washington Capitals CSN Mid-Atlantic +5,000
Columbus Blue Jackets FS Ohio +2,000
San Jose Sharks CSN California +2,000
Florida Panthers FS Florida +1,000
Colorado Avalanche Altitude -2,000
Top 5
Team RSN Avg. No. of households (Change*)
Chicago Blackhawks CSN Chicago 198,000 (+86.8%)
Boston Bruins NESN 165,000 (+47.3%)
Pittsburgh Penguins Root Sports 138,000 (+55.1%)
New York Rangers MSG 133,000 (+125.4%)
Philadelphia Flyers CSN 101,000 (+6.3%)
Bottom 5
Dallas Stars FS Southwest 21,000 (+50.0%)
Phoenix Coyotes FS Arizona 17,000 (+142.9%)
Colorado Avalanche Altitude 16,000 (-11.1%)
Columbus Blue Jackets FS Ohio 11,000 (+22.2%)
Florida Panthers FS Florida 4,000 (+33.3%)
Top 5
Team RSN 2012-13 rating (Change*)
New Jersey Devils MSG+ 0.55 (+205.6%)
New York Islanders MSG+ 0.47 (+147.4%)
Phoenix Coyotes FS Arizona 0.92 (+130.0%)
New York Rangers MSG 1.8 (+125.0%)
Los Angeles Kings FS West 0.63 (+110.0%)
Bottom 5
Buffalo Sabres MSG 10.13 (+17.8%)
Washington Capitals CSN Mid-Atlantic 1.69 (+13.4%)
Philadelphia Flyers CSN 3.41 (+6.9%)
San Jose Sharks CSN California 1.38 (+6.2%)
Colorado Avalanche Altitude 1.03 (-12.7%)

Note: Comparable data for Carolina, Montreal and Winnipeg was not available.
* Changes compared to the same number of games played in 2011-12 season, which as of press time was approximately 30 for each club.

Source: Nielsen

As part of Major League Soccer’s inaugural Rivalry Weekend, NBC Sports produced one game on its flagship network, plus two more matches and a whip-around show called “MLS Breakaway” with live look-ins and analysis of four other games on NBC Sports Network on March 17. SportsBusiness Journal soccer reporter Christopher Botta shadowed NBC broadcasters and production executives throughout the day, starting at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and ending at NBC Sports Group’s studios in Stamford, Conn.

Text and photos by Christopher Botta

MotoGP — the international motorcycle racing circuit — launched on Speed in 1997.

This August, the day after Speed officially morphs into Fox Sports 1, a MotoGP race from Indianapolis will fill up the rebranded channel’s Sunday afternoon schedule.

MotoGP is “fun racing,” Fox Sports executive Bill Wanger says.
Photo: SPEED
That comes after a three-year extension Fox Sports signed with the MotoGP World Championship that extends the deal through 2015. Specific deal terms were not released, but Fox Sports is paying a rights fee for the property, as it has in previous deals.

“We think it’s a great property to have,” said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of programming and research. “We want to maintain our leadership position in the motorsports world.”

The new deal rolls out April 7 with the Grand Prix of Qatar, which will be telecast on Speed. Speed and Fox Sports 1 will carry a 19-week schedule that lasts from April to November.

The schedule includes three races in the U.S. — in addition to Indianapolis in August, Austin, Texas, will host a race April 21 and the U.S. Grand Prix will be held in Monterey, Calif., on July 21.

The races are usually televised live on Sunday afternoons in one-hour windows. MotoGP has been a consistent draw over the years for Speed; last year’s season averaged about 70,000 viewers per race. The U.S. races perform better. Last year, the two U.S. races averaged 130,000 viewers, which is comparable to the viewership Speed posted for some of its Formula One races.

“The races fit in well with our schedule, especially since most of the races are on Sundays,” Wanger said. “It’s the best of motorcycle road racing. It’s fun racing.”

Spike TV’s latest effort to rebuild its MMA franchise following the departure of the UFC is a reality show that aims to reproduce the network’s UFC success while cultivating a brand closely identified with the channel.

Set to debut this summer, “Fight Master: Bellator MMA” bears more than a passing resemblance to “The Ultimate Fighter,” the flagship program on Spike that resurrected the UFC in 2005. The new show, like the UFC’s, features up-and-coming fighters battling their way through a tournament for a $100,000 prize and a chance to compete in the main promotion.

But Spike aims to set “Fight Master” apart by allowing fighters to choose from one of four MMA coaches, including former UFC champion Randy Couture, in a twist reminiscent of NBC’s “The Voice.” The show also emphasizes training and personal histories over the frat-house rowdiness sometimes seen on “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Spike scored a coup with Couture, who originally approached the channel to promote another reality show. Spike took advantage of the opening to discuss “Fight Master,” and Couture signed on last April. The show also has Bertram van Munster, co-creator of CBS’s “The Amazing Race,” as executive producer.

That kind of mutual benefit is what Viacom, Spike’s parent company, had in mind when it purchased Bellator for a reported $50 million in October 2011. Spike didn’t want to repeat its experience with the UFC, said Kevin Kay, president of Spike. Spike lost the UFC when it signed a reported seven-year, $700 million deal with Fox in August 2011.

“For us, it was like we had helped them build this enormous business that went from them having to pay their way on Spike and being in debt, to a point where they had a valuation of $2 billion,” Kay said. “We thought if this is going to come to an end, the next time around we’re going to do it a different way.”

“Look what Spike was able to do with the UFC as a renter. My discussion with them was, ‘Imagine what you could do as an owner.’”
Bjorn Rebney,
Bellator Chairman and CEO
Bellator was founded in 2008 by Chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney, a former Steinberg Moorad & Dunn lawyer who later promoted fights with Sugar Ray Leonard. Rebney kept the company alive as he watched several ambitious MMA promoters flame out or be bought by UFC parent company Zuffa. With the UFC ready to abandon Spike in 2011, Rebney pitched Bellator as offering all the flexibility in production and marketing that the UFC didn’t.

“Look what Spike was able to do with the UFC as a renter,” Rebney said. “My discussion with them was, ‘Imagine what you could do as an owner.’”
One uncomfortable facet of the UFC-Spike deal was advertising. While Spike controlled TV ads, the UFC controlled rights in the arena. Spike would run ads for Miller Lite while the UFC displayed Bud Light ads in the cage. Buying Bellator relieved Spike of that worry, and Spike brought Bellator major advertisers, including Dave & Buster’s and DirecTV, as well as Miller Lite.

The new alliance began in earnest this year, after Bellator spent 2012 on Viacom-owned MTV2 due to a clause in the UFC’s expiring agreement that prevented Spike from airing other MMA programs for a year. Spike hopes “Fight Master” will boost ratings for its Bellator programming, which thus far have predictably fallen short of what the UFC produced for the channel.

The Jan. 17 debut of “Bellator MMA Live,” the promoter’s Thursday night fight show, had 938,000 average viewers and earned a 0.7 rating among the male 18-34 demographic. In comparison, Spike’s final season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which ended in December 2011, earned an average of 1.5 million viewers, and UFC’s live finale on Spike averaged 2.4 million viewers.

Still, Bellator’s initial ratings nearly tripled the promotion’s best ratings on MTV2.

Kay and Rebney continue to tweak the show to take advantage of the lead-in from live pro wrestling series “TNA Impact,” much as Spike led into the original season of “The Ultimate Fighter” with “WWE Raw.” Bellator’s intro skips an ad break and moves quickly into a fight following the end of “TNA Impact.”

Bellator is expanding into digital media as well with a second-screen sports app, created by Omnigon in partnership with Spike, featuring real-time stats by CompuStrike. The app, used in conjunction with “Bellator MMA Live,” allows viewers to vote on which fighter is winning a round as it happens, with the vote results announced on-air. The app for Apple devices was heavily promoted during its debut Feb. 28, a night when Bellator saw its best post-debut performance with 901,000 average viewers.

Rebney looks to Viacom’s media acumen to give the promotion even more of a boost.

“They’re our partner,” he said, “so they’re looking at that future with an eye toward how Bellator is going to play into it.”

Andrew Westney is a staff writer for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily.

John Ourand
The biggest sports media story last week had nothing to do with Fox Sports 1 paying the new Big East hundreds of millions of dollars for its media rights, or ESPN paying the old Big East nine figures for its rights.

The top story in my world last week dealt with ESPN’s plans to have one of its biggest stars, Bill Simmons, offer live commentary on the NCAA tournament via YouTube.

I’m serious. Consumers increasingly are using smartphones and tablets as a companion to watching television. For more than a year, networks have been trying to figure out how to program what they’ve been calling the “second screen.”

The Simmons approach is a bold effort, since some of the live commentary last week was slated to occur during game action. That’s what makes this test unique: ESPN doesn’t hold the TV rights to that game action but is looking to control a segment of the conversation.

If successful, the effects could be significant.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons will use YouTube to comment on NCAA tournament games, which are being shown on other stations.
What’s to stop Turner’s Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley from putting on their own online halftime show around the NBA Finals, even though the games are on ABC? Or how about NBC firing up its 30 Rock studio to have Dan Patrick, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison analyze ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” games online, starting with a couple of minutes left in the first half?

The move underscores how important television networks view the second screen. This was one of the dominant themes to come out of the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.

“What’s different now is the second screen,” said Jason Kint, senior vice president and general manager of “You still have the big screen — nobody’s messing with the big screen — but now you have that second option.”

So far, networks generally have programmed the second screen for avid fans. With NFL games, they have played around with different camera angles. The Masters trains its online cameras on Amen Corner.

But networks are finding success by programming the second screen as a companion to television and trying to draw in more casual viewers. That’s what did during the Super Bowl, Kint said during a panel discussion at the SXSW show. (Full disclosure: I also was on Kint’s SXSW panel.)

“Some of the stuff was natural. We knew that viewers wanted it, and we delivered,” Kint said. “Sometimes there were things that you’d never think of.”

Kint said he was surprised by the popularity of some camera angles, such as the “All-22” camera that showed all 22 players on the field at once, essentially shooting from the worst seat in the house. It was a CBS camera that typically had only been used for replays on TV.

“It was an angle from on high,” Kint said, “but you also had the big screen and the CBS folks with 60-plus cameras telling the story. Then, on your lap, you could see all the players on the field.”

The notion of trying to figure out how to control the second screen is not just limited to the TV networks. The NFL hosted its Digital Media Summit in Austin for the three days before SXSW, and reps from every NFL team descended on the city to find out the best ways to program and advertise on digital media. While those in attendance didn’t refer to digital programming as the second screen, they clearly are trying to figure out better ways to engage with fans.

“The popularity of digital sports has never been greater, and with the space offering such deep engagement, it’s an appealing place for innovation,” said George Scott, the NFL’s general manager of club sites.

Sports still is not a big part of SXSW — this year, at least, entertainment networks had a much bigger presence at the show — but as the importance of the second screen grows, I would expect more sports executives to make their way to Austin each March.

“I can definitely see sports having a growing presence at SXSW,” Scott said. “The event has become such a draw for influential people in the digital space.”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.