Hey. I don’t always flaunt this kind of thing, but I got a degree in Communications while working for SCoC in my early years, and I figured I ought to say some stuff about a hot-button topic that’s come to the forefront recently: NHL TV Ratings.
Wait please come back I promise this is interesting-
The Issue, as presented:
The Sports Business Journal recently posted an article that showed NHL Television ratings had dropped precipitously, up to 22% in Year Two of it’s shared contract with Turner Network Television and ESPN, who split national game coverage thanks to a very long deal. This blew up on the internet box when Mark Burns of a data analysis company I’ve never once heard of decided to do the incorrect thing and post on Twitter dot com about it.
NHL U.S. TV national viewership is down 22% this season, per findings from @AustinKarp.— Mark J. Burns (@markjburns88) February 1, 2023
NHL regular games to date have averaged 373,000 viewers on ESPN/TNT, 2nd season of the league's 7-year pact with Disney & Turner.
NHL averaged 478,000 viewers at this point last season.
Naturally, the easiest kneejerk reaction is to blame Gary Bettman, and that’s probably a good call because Bettman is the Commissioner and pretty much everything has to go through him at some point and he is a big part of why this mess has gotten to where it is, but pretty much everybody has had an opinion on this over the past 48 hours, and we feel it’s time we interrogated some issues at least I personally have noticed that might be contributing to this.
Last year, ESPN and TNT posted respectable numbers in their NHL broadcasts without major interruption throughout the year. One thing that definitely helped that front was the lack of blackouts on their coverage; you could switch back and forth between the local and national feed without issue and it paid dividends, particularly in big markets. That was not true this year, and it seems plain as day that the regional blackouts have crippled the NHL’s reach.
Cable TV is currently entering the twilight of it’s existence; very few channels make money, even fewer make gangbuster ratings of any pre-packaged programming, and it’s considered a miracle if anything draws better than live sports (it’s why Yellowstone is such a darling right now; it does.). Streaming is jockeying to become the new “default” option when it comes to visual low-arts and live events, and is...well...it’s going through it at the moment. Far too many services for increasingly exorbitant fees with increasingly draconian methods of keeping passwords and accounts in one place.
The NHL’s deal with ESPN should be counterbalancing this due to the sheer weight and might of the Mouse’s fat wallet, but these contracts remain obstacles that do not need to be there, and make the prospect of watching an NHL game harder.
For example, let’s leave our market for a second and talk about two eastern conference squads that are hot right now in the online space: The Devils and the Sabres. Under the current methods available to us, there is currently no real way to watch the Devils or Sabres in a legal fashion due to their tie up with MSG and the largest cable provider in the region, Xfinity, refusing to carry MSG. Tage Thompson and Jack Hughes are effectively unavailable for their own markets thanks to this. To say nothing of the many, many Sinclair stations in under the Bally name about to go under that the league has to now contend with.
That, more than anything else, is messed up that we’re still stuck to this archaic concept of the RSN.
Scheduled (bungled) Execution
One thing that Sean Gentille of the Athletic brought up is that the precipitous drop may have actually had been in regards to an absolutely absurd ESPN decision to use hockey as programming against Sunday Night Football.
Which is...not going to work in the USA.
Even if you’re not a football fan, you’d have to be a truly, confidently dumb person to think Americans would want to watch hockey over their local football team. Sure, there were more games on ESPN over the last few months than last year, but even then, it was up against the single biggest draw in television at the moment. That’s not smart, but in the coming months, it should alleviate, as expected.
Of course, that doesn’t overcome a perceived flaw in the schedule itself; a lot of people don’t like that the divisional games seem so poorly placed, or are scheduled in weird times or are stuffed with back to backs, or any number of different myriad issues with the schedule that ultimately come down to “I don’t feel like the rivalries I cared about when I was 15 matter as much as they did now that I’m 30.” Which is a perfectly understandable argument.
But I also think there’s room for new rivalries to be built, and if that was the goal set out by the league...Bruins fans really don’t have much room to complain, because now they have two teams in Blue and White that they hate more than anything. I have more complicated and vicious feelings towards the Lightning right now than I do towards the Habs, for whom my opinion has largely been “god I hope they stay like that forever”, but that’s only ever gonna be petty, mean parts of me.
The rest of me knows that Boston and Montreal are better for the league when they’re good at the same time, and playing each other in evenly spread amounts across the entire season, not four games in the back half of the year.
“Why should we market the stars?”
You’d think this would be a gimme to answer, right? The best players should receive proper coverage to properly market the game by being the most skillful, the most impressive, the best to watch. And we’re not hurting for American-specific examples!
Jack Hughes has at long last come into his own, Trevor Zegras is doing both all sorts of crazy moves and also all sorts of shithead behavior that could make him a natural heel, Matty Beniers is gunning for a Calder and has sort of a goofy relationship with Will Borgen. Jason Robertson has a direct line of western conference inspiration whose brother will hopefully soon be an NHL forward! We are not hurting for examples of players you could use just to cater to Yanks!
But it’s a legitimate thought for mainstream hockey media. For some reason, we have a lot of trouble letting people on TV who want to talk about the stars of the game, and are instead far more interested in lionizing depth players as though they are the “real” heroes of hockey, rather than important parts of a larger whole. It’s good for them to get their time in the sun but like...eventually you burn in the sun if you’re out there for too long. That’s where I think a lot of people have trouble; balance can’t be achieved if you’re trying to build up one without the other.
Still treating the symptoms
Really, one thing that Gentille made clear at the end of his writeup is that these are all symptoms of much larger problems. Staggered Starts, the Cap Crunch, those disastrous board ads, that “star argument”, the deeply uncomfortable fencesitting the league does regarding social issues, the inherent tribalist nature of NHL hockey fandom that makes it really hard to consume the game the same way you consume the NBA or NHL, but I think most critically the issue of access is what has continually nipped at the league and sport as a whole’s heels for some time now. The league has clung to an outdated and frankly untenable model for it’s content that makes it far too difficult to tune in, and far too easy to find something else to watch.
We can have all the philosophical debates about the evolving nature of many of the game’s aspects: it’s role in the larger community, the cost of entry, the cost of playing, fighting, scoring being up or down, the Salary Cap and the draft, growing of the game and all that at some point, and I suspect we will have to do so quite soon.
But first, let’s all agree that we all need to be able to watch the damn games first; before anything else happens.
We can get into the weeds of what the sport should be like when we all have a chance to see it.