NHL TV ratings drop is easily explained away but there are other real problems

A few things about the NHL that’d be necessary to remember if we weren’t constantly reminded of them: The dialogue surrounding the league is often stupid. The news is often bad. And plenty of time, the errors are unforced.

So, with that in mind, there was a bit of data making the rounds on Wednesday morning that seemed to tick all the boxes: US national TV viewership, in the second season of the league’s deal with ESPN and TNT, is down 22 percent from the first, according to Sports Business Journal.

That’s a big drop regardless of the context, and it probably doesn’t bode all that well. Anything the NHL says or does in that space should be treated with a healthy level of skepticism — and all the points Sean McIndoe made Wednesday morning about the (now) 30-year Gary Bettman was applied.

That’s why so many folks on Twitter keyed on it; it matches plenty of our lived experiences, whether we’re fans, folks who cover the sport or both. “NHL uncovers a manhole, then falls into it” isn’t a trope. It’s observed reality, and it’s happened with regularity for … eighteen years? Thirty? One hundred? Did the Montreal Wanderers have a media rights deal to botch?

In this case, though — 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 drops. If this surprises you, you are not alone.

In ESPN’s case, they started using hockey as counter-programming for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” Nationally speaking, that’s where other broadcasts go to die; American sports fans, other than those who root for the teams involved, have better things to do. Folks, you’ll be shocked to hear, would rather watch football or, like, eat dinner.

So in 2021, ESPN reserved that spot for stuff like NBA G-League games (Ignite vs. Grand Rapids Gold on Dec. 19) and the MLB Gold Glove ceremonies, opting instead to go light on NHL coverage during football season. In 2022, the approach changed, along with the decision to go from eight televised games — which undoubtedly got a bump from the return-to-ESPN curiosity factor — to 17, many of which aired against the planet’s most reliable TV juggernaut. Gotta show them somewhere.

And, of course, if you removed those recent Sunday night games from the equation and graded on the same rubric as last season, ratings would rise to an average of 491,000. That’s better than ESPN’s average during the 2021-22 season.

TNT, according to SBJ, has averaged 359,000 viewers over 36 games, which is down 16 percent compared to the 20 games it aired in the same period last season. At least seven games have been affected by regional blackouts. That’s a new wrinkle, and an important one; Bruins broadcasts on TNT, for example, are blacked out in New England because of NESN’s regional rights — and last season, NESN drew an average of 661,000 viewers for those games. It’s a similar story with the Penguins, who typically have the highest local share of ratings in the league. The Rangers were blacked out on TNT, too. New York? Pretty big TV market. Would it be nice to have it reflected in the numbers, yeah?

And maybe most crucially, even without that context — if there weren’t blackouts or scheduling decisions to consider — we’re talking about a few months’ worth of games. The NHL’s problems aren’t that new. They aren’t new at all, actually. This season’s salary cap crunch is killing the trade deadline, for sure. But TV ratings from one year to the next in November and December, when deals rarely happen? That’s a tougher sell.

A lack of staggered starts? A pain in the ass for media people and … media people. An overall failure to grow the game? That’s a slow bleed, not a year-over-year cratering. Playing for ties? Boring commentators? Terrible star marketing? A failure to grow the game as a national American TV product, rather than one reliant upon 90,000 people in Southwestern Pennsylvania tuning in like clockwork for all of Sidney Crosby’s games? We’re trying to find the guy who did this.

Those issues are as real as they are long-standing. And they’re not neatly wrapped up in any one data point, let alone something as fickle as TV numbers. Remember it today — and remember it in a few months, after almost 20 ABC games get folded into the calculations. That’ll fix the ratings. The bigger problems aren’t going anywhere.

(Photo: Andre Ringuette / Getty Images)


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