NHL TV ratings drop is easily explained away but there are other real problems
A few things about the NHL that we should remember if we weren’t constantly reminded of them: The dialogue around the league is often stupid. The news is often bad. And a lot of the time, the errors are straightforward.
So with that in mind, there was a bit of data doing the rounds on Wednesday morning that seemed to tick all the boxes: US national television viewership, in the second season of the league’s deal with ESPN and TNT, is down 22% from the former, according to Sports Business Journal.
That’s a big drop in any context, and it probably doesn’t bode well. Anything the NHL says or does in this space should be treated with a healthy level of skepticism – and all the points Sean McIndoe made Wednesday morning about the (now) 30-year-old era of Gary Bettman apply. .
That’s why so many people on Twitter followed him; it matches a lot of our lived experiences, whether we’re fans, people who cover the sport, or both. “NHL finds a manhole, then falls in” is not a trope. It’s an observed reality, and it’s happened with regularity for… eighteen years? Thirty? Hundred? Did the Montreal Wanderers have a media rights deal to mess up?
In this case, however – and maybe only this one – you should think twice before internalizing the ESPN/TNT deal as a failure because there are legitimate explanations for the declines. If this surprises you, you are not alone.
In ESPN’s case, they started using hockey as counter-programming to NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” Nationally, this is where other shows will die; American sports fans, other than those who support the teams involved, have better things to do. People, you’ll be shocked to learn, prefer to watch football or, like, have dinner.
So in 2021, ESPN reserved that spot for things like NBA G-League games (Ignite vs. Grand Rapids Gold on Dec. 19) and MLB Gold Glove ceremonies, opting instead for light coverage of the NHL during the soccer season. In 2022, the approach changed, alongside the decision to go from eight game shows – which no doubt suffered a boost in the curiosity factor back to ESPN – to 17, many of which aired against the TV juggernaut the most reliable on the planet. Gotta show them somewhere.
And, of course, if you took those recent Sunday night games out of the equation and put them under the same heading as last season, the ratings would average 491,000. That’s better than ESPN’s average. during the 2021-22 season.
TNT, according to SBJ, averaged 359,000 viewers over 36 games, down 16% from the 20 games aired during the same period last season. At least seven games have been affected by regional outages. It’s a new wrinkle, and an important one; Bruins broadcasts on TNT, for example, are cut in New England due to NESN regional rights – and last season NESN averaged 661,000 viewers for those games. It’s a similar story with the Penguins, who typically have the highest local viewership share in the league. Rangers were also blocked on TNT. New York? Fairly large TV market. It would be nice if that was reflected in the numbers, yes?
And perhaps most importantly, even without that context — if there were no power outages or scheduling decisions to consider — we’re talking a few months of games. The NHL’s problems aren’t all that new. They are not new at all, in fact. This season’s salary cap crisis is killing the trade deadline, that’s for sure. But the year-over-year ratings in November and December, when deals rarely come in? It’s a harder sell.
A lack of staggered departures? A pain in the ass for media people and… media people. A global failure to develop the game? It’s slow bleeding, not year-to-year cratering. Playing for ties? Boring commentators? Terrible featured marketing? A failure to develop the game as an American national television product, rather than depending on 90,000 people in southwestern Pennsylvania logging on like clockwork for all of Sidney Crosby’s games? We’re trying to find the guy who did this.
These problems are as real as they have been around for a long time. And they’re not neatly aggregated into a single data point, let alone something as finicky as TV numbers. Remember it today – and remember it a few months from now, after almost 20 ABC games have been factored into the calculations. This will correct the notes. The biggest problems aren’t going anywhere.
(Photo: Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)