We don’t need no stinkin’ TV ratings

24Jan07

Since I did my amateur statistician analysis of attendance, why not tackle the inevitable TV ratings issue? It’s All-Star time, which means it’s time for the annual Gary Bettman smoke-and-mirrors show when it comes to the state of the game. You know, the part where Bettman spins every number on the planet — even the number of hockey tape rolls used per game — into a positive indicator for the league.

The TV ratings question of doom always elicits an interesting answer from Bettman. As he told Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News:

“The answer is we’re working very hard with our partners. Both of our partners tell us not to be concerned, that these things take time. We’re committed to doing the right things over the long haul and we’re confident over time our ratings will grow.”

The media and blogosphere is having a field day with the NHL’s TV ratings. Sure, it’s true that you can’t fully factor in the positive benefits of Slingbox, PVR, and YouTube — technologies that weren’t even around ten years ago — but that’s still an excuse. Until on-demand broadband becomes our everyday way of viewing live sporting events, TV ratings still mean a hell of a lot.

You know what, though? For all of the double-talk and spin Bettman always gives, he does have one truth in there that he always emphasizes: TV sports ratings for team sports across the board have taken a nosedive. The NFL is the leader that everyone wants to emulate but other than that, the evidence shows that the NBA and MLB TV ratings are dipping just like the NHL’s.

NBA
All-Star Game
NBC 2001 5.1/8
NBC 2002 8.2/15
TNT 2003 6.6/12
TNT 2004 5.1/10
TNT 2005 4.9/8
TNT 2006 4.3/8
Total % drop from 2001: 16%

Other Broadcasts (Regular Season, Finals)
NBC 2001 3.0 12.1
NBC 2002 N/A 10.2
ABC 2003 2.6 6.5
ABC 2004 2.4 11.5
ABC 2005 2.2 8.2
ABC 2006 2.2 8.5
Total % drop from 2001: 26% (regular season), 30% (finals)

MLB
All-Star Game
2001 11.0
2002 9.5
2003 9.5
2004 8.8
2005 8.1
Total % drop from 2001: 26%

World Series
2001 15.7
2002 11.9
2003 13.9
2004 15.8 (BoSox win)
2005 11.1
Total % drop from 2001: 30%

NHL
All-Star Game
2000 ABC 2.7
2001 ABC 1.7
2002 ABC 1.8
2003 ABC 1.7
2004 ABC 1.8
Total % drop from 2000: 33%

Other Broadcasts (Regular Season, Cup Finals)
2000-01 ABC 1.1 3.3
2001-02 ABC 1.4 3.6
2002-03 ABC 1.1 2.9
2003-04 ABC 1.1 2.6
2005-06 NBC 1.0 2.3
Total % drop from 2000-2001: 30% (Finals)

Now I’m nowhere near an expert on these numbers so I’m sure there is some further information I am totally oblivious about, but in terms of pure rating numbers you can see where things are trending. Depending on how you look at it, you can say that the NHL is bleeding viewers as much as the other leagues. Is that good news or bad news? Which side of the spin do you want to believe? Of course there’s always going to be an ebb and flow to TV ratings depending on what teams are involved and who’s popular at the time. But as a whole, the entire TV sports landscape looks, well, pretty dismal.

Sure, you could say that the NHL is just following the trend of other TV sports. I suppose that’s good news if saying “Everyone else is doing terrible so we’re on par!” is positive. The realistic point of view is this: hockey on television, for whatever reason, has eroded down to its core audience. There was a bump in the mid-90s thanks to the publicity of the New York Rangers ’94 Cup victory, the mid-90s Red Wings juggernaut, and the end of the Wayne Gretzky era. Then, as we entered the new millennium and other sports TV ratings slipped, the NHL shot itself in the foot even further by allowing the awful style of clutch-and-grab to take over.

Gary Bettman wants to say that the league is being patient and they’re confident that with the right treatment, TV ratings will grow. The problem is that they’ve tried pretty much damn near everything. TV sports ratings are like a mudslide and the NHL is trying to fight its way upstream.

The question then remains: how do you grow the game? Obviously TV is not working. The future is HDTV, and if you’ve seen hockey on it, you know that it’s almost as good as sitting in the lower bowl of an arena. For those who haven’t seen it, no, I’m not exaggerating. HDTV will essentially eliminate the age-old argument that the puck is too hard to follow but will it make a difference? By the time HD is really integrated into the mainstream public maybe 3-4 years from now, who knows where broadband streaming will be?

In terms of pure exposure, the VS experiment is a failure on the long-term and the short-term. The short-term is out of sight, out of mind, and the game stalls. The long-term is that the longer the NHL stays out of the mainstream, the further it gets pushed back on the sports landscape. If games were on ESPN, don’t you think they’d try marketing the league by showing highlights and commercials to much bigger than audiences than, say, Professional Bull Riding?

Ultimately, the best, most fail-safe way to grow the game is youth hockey. Trends and technologies will come and go but if you teach kids how to play hockey, they will grow to love the game and become long-term hockey nuts. That’s much more valuable than a one-year ratings spike. Grass-roots programs have made youth hockey teams from California, Florida, and Texas winners in national tournaments. That’s something that simply wouldn’t happen a decade ago.

The NHL wants a national footprint. TV is a factor, but my guess is that the most dedicated hockey fan of tomorrow, the one who will buy season tickets and jerseys and random figurines and collectibles, is the kid in the non-traditional market learning how to skate today.

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5 Responses to “We don’t need no stinkin’ TV ratings”

  1. 1 E

    couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. nothing builds interest in a sport over the long-term better than kids who grow up with it. anyway, it seems to be working for soccer in the states- i knew a bunch of kids and teenagers and college students who were enthralled with the world cup last year, and who have even started to follow the local teams. the problem is that it’s a very, very long term solution- there’s not a ton of money to be made off this sort of a fan base until they grow up, and in many cases not until they pass the affection down to their own children. so if a program is started now, you’re probably talking about 20-30 years before it results in significant tangible benefits for the national league. i suppose the question is what to do in the meantime, if indeed something must be done?

  2. 2 peterboroughpete
  3. 3 Shannon

    Thank you for writing what you did on the AJC’s “Debating access to NHL Bloggers.”

  4. 4 Anonymous

    Maybe the ratings would have been higher if they had not had it on some obscure channel that requires a premium package to watch.

    They would have been better off renting the Home Shopping Network and pitching NHL wares during commercial breaks. “Never before in the HISTORY of the Home Shopping Network…”

    Seriously, tell me they would not have done better on ESPN?

  5. 5 Anonymous

    We want more fighting!


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