Fewer eyes, more guys
ESPN's hockey ratings down overall but up among males
By Deborah D. McAdams -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/18/2000 8:00:00 PM
The type of corporate synergy that gets media bigwigs in a lather was not enough to elevate hockey to the status of a national pastime. In the first year of the National Hockey League's joint contract with ABC and corporate cable partner ESPN, ratings for the sport slumped slightly in the regular season before pulling out an increase for the final championship games.
Overall ratings for ESPN's post-season hockey coverage dropped about 15% compared with last year, while the cherry-picked playoff games carried on ABC posted a 22% increase over Fox's 1999 coverage. (ESPN has carried NHL games since the 1980s. ABC became the broadcast partner for the first time this season.)
The final championship game in the Stanley Cup series, a double-overtime cliffhanger won by the New Jersey Devils over the Dallas Stars June 10, pulled in 4.3 million households for ABC, which isn't much for a broadcast network. It was the week's 62nd-most-watched show, according to Nielsen Media Research, just behind ABC's Making the Band and just ahead of Fox's doomed game show Chance of a Lifetime.
The Stanley Cup finale got less than half the audience a National Basketball Association playoff game draws. But it is still the largest audience for a Stanley Cup final since 1974, according to Artie Bulgrin, vice president of research and sales development at ESPN.
ESPN's post-season ratings suffered from Millionaire's disease, Bulgrin surmises. The NBA was another factor, back for the full season after last year's strike. Bulgrin says that, during ESPN's coverage of the first night of Stanley Cup playoffs, the broadcast audience was 66% larger than it was last year. ESPN's coverage of 36 post-season games averaged a 1.1 rating, or around 858,000 households, compared with a 1.3 last year.
The good news for ESPN was that more guys watched the games. Males 18-34 were up 14% over last year and 9% compared with 1998, and buyers buy hockey for guys' eyes. Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Television Group, says that, unlike the other major league sports, hockey draws a specific audience: upscale, suspender-wearing, Wall Street types.
"It's a very exclusive male, somewhat upscale audience that watches hockey," he says. "The household number isn't the one you're going to look at. You're going to look at the male audience."
Football, baseball and basketball draw a much broader audience, something hockey has been trying to accomplish for years. Widening the audience demographic for the sport is the very goal of ESPN and ABC, especially given their joint $600 million, five-year contract for television rights. The problem is that hockey's following is highly regional. Viewing skews toward cities where teams are playing. And it's hard enough to follow a puck from the bleachers, much less on television.
"It's not an ideal sport for television," Carroll says. "Baseball is more of an ideal sport, or football, which is in 20-yard increments; but in hockey, it's like, 'Hey, where's the puck, where'd it go?'"
Given the promotion power of ABC Sports and the success of this year's final game, hockey has growth potential in the coming years, Carroll says. But the sport needs an explosion to turn around the TV price.
There is a lot of upside, looking at it optimistically. ABC's June 5 telecast earned just a 3.3 rating/6 share, the lowest national numbers ever for that night of the week. The June 3 game on ABC got a 2.3/5, the second-lowest rating for an ABC Saturday.
Can hockey be the next national pastime?
"As it stands now, probably not," Carroll says, "although I think it's impossible to know when a particular player or team can so engage an audience. Maybe the next Wayne Gretzky is coming onto a team in a city big enough that we'll all find out about it. Suddenly, he's on Letterman and MTV. These are all things that none of us can say with any degree of certainty. I don't think that anyone knew that Michael Jordan was going to be the savior of the NBA..There's nothing to say, established as hockey is, that it couldn't happen."
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