The National Hockey League is so far following in the
footsteps of the National Basketball Association in beginning a lockout-delayed
season with sizable television ratings increases, which is a relief to both the
league's TV network partners and their advertisers.
Last season, after the NBA lost two months of telecasts both
locally with regional sports networks and nationally on cable networks ESPN and
TNT, ratings soared once the shortened season began. Through the first two
months of the 2011-12 NBA season, local ratings were up a cumulative 19%, with
some RSNs up as much as 135%. Viewership on ESPN was up 20% and on TNT, it was
Lots of sports industry "experts" predicted a gloomier path
for the NHL, but that hasn't been the case. With one month of the 2012-13
hockey season almost complete, local household ratings for the Chicago
Blackhawks' games on Comcast SportsNet Chicago are up 68%; ratings for the
Washington Capitals on Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic are up 17%; ratings for
the San Jose Sharks on Comcast SportsNet California are up 20%; and ratings for
the Philadelphia Flyers on Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia are up 6%, according
to Nielsen data.
The ratings on the Fox regional sports nets that carry NHL
games are up even more. Household ratings for Fox Sports Midwest, which
televises the St. Louis Blues games, are up 202%; the Florida Panthers on Fox
Sports Florida, up 182%; Minnesota Wild on Fox Sports North, up 170%; the
Phoenix Coyotes on Fox Sports Arizona, up 133%; and the Los Angeles Kings on
Fox Sports West, up 116%.
Ratings for the New York Rangers on MSG are up 229%; New
York Islanders on MSG Plus, up 122%; and the New Jersey Devils on MSG Plus, up
121%. Ratings for the Boston Bruins on NESN are up 115%.
Ratings for 21 NHL teams with games televised on regional
sports networks in the U.S. are cumulatively up 76%, while ratings on the Fox
RSNs are up 108%.
Viewership is also doing well for the NHL's national
telecasts. So far, through 12 national telecasts that have been on NBC Sports
Network, viewership is up 36% compared to a similar 12-game period last season.
The three Wednesday Night Rivalry games have produced three of the top five
most-watched regular season games in the cable network's history, including
when it was named Versus.
On the NBC broadcast network, the first four games of this
season have averaged a 1.1 household rating, up 22% from last season. The NBC
games are also averaging 1.37 million viewers, up 36% from last season.
A spokesperson for NBC Sports says, "Sponsors and other
advertisers migrated back to the NHL telecasts quickly and they are delighted
with the returns to date."
All NHL official sponsors are advertising on NBC. Among the
leading marketers are Discovery, Honda, Geico and Bridgestone.
Regional sports network sales execs can't be happier,
knowing that things could have played out very differently.
"We did lose a significant amount of ad revenue in fourth
quarter, but right now the TV hockey market is doing very well," says Ray
Warren, executive VP and chief revenue officer at Comcast Sports Group. He
credits the NHL for scheduling a majority of divisional rivalry matchups, which
draws viewers. "The thing the NHL did right was scheduling as many games as
they could with division rivals," Warren says. "There are not a lot of games
between teams with long geographical distances between them. There are also
more games being played each week and this is drawing in more viewers.
Advertisers follow the eyeballs, so if the ratings stay strong, we can start to
firm up our pricing a bit. These ratings increases have put a little bounce in
our sales step."
Warren says price hikes are necessary with these types of
ratings increases, but adds "we are not planning to raise rates 60-70%."
Warren says major advertisers like Geico and General Motors
are back, but the advertisers vary by market for the regional networks. He says
first-quarter telecasts at the Comcast RSNs are about 90% sold out of ad inventory,
but second quarter and into the playoffs, there is a lot more inventory to be
sold. "But we feel good right now where we are at," he says.
Since the Comcast RSNs also televised NBA games, they were
able to keep some hockey dollars in the fold.
Craig Sloan, senior VP, national advertising sales for Home
Team Sports, a division of Fox Sports Media Group, says he was "pleasantly
surprised that all the companies who invested in hockey telecasts last season
Sloan says they are at a "higher percentage of sellout right
now than I thought we'd be. Some of the teams telecasts are 100 percent sold
out for first quarter while others are in the 60-70 percent sellout range."
Major national advertisers like Geico, MillerCoors and
several of the auto brands are back, Sloan says, while new national advertisers
in the RSN fold for hockey include AT&T, Taco Bell, Firestone and Chase.
In an unusual arrangement, Fox's Home Team Sports not only
sells national inventory for the Fox RSNs, but also for some of the Comcast
RSN, while NBC Sports sells national ads for other Comcast RSNs. HTS also sells
national ads for MSG and NESN.
"We package all the RSNs together to sell nationally not
only for hockey but for other sports against ESPN and Turner," Sloan says. "We
also sell national packages against NBC and NBC Sports Network."
Like Warren, Sloan believes that the compacted schedule is
fueling viewer interest and also thinks extending the regular season about two
weeks could benefit the hockey networks because those games could be more
meaningful and draw biggest audiences than some of the early season baseball
A key selling point Sloan is using to pull advertisers into
the hockey telecasts is the heavy millennial tech-savvy audience that appeals to
many marketers trying to target the always harder-to-reach young men.
Sloan said he plans to use this ratings momentum to start
selling hockey advertising for the 2013-14 season right after this season ends.
Meanwhile, both Sloan and Warren are open for
business with plenty of good inventory available for the final month of the
season in April as well as the playoffs. Each RSN has five games in the first
round of the playoffs, along with NBC Sports Network. Then NBC Sports Network
and NBC get the remainder of the telecasts.
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