National NHL ratings in the U.S. have taken an enormous hit year-over-year, according to a new report from the Sports Business Journal.
The report reveals a concerning 22% year-over-year decrease in viewership, particularly of note given that the NHL is in just the second year of a pair of exclusive seven-year U.S. media rights deals with ESPN and TNT.
In part, the drop is due to an expanded slate of NHL games across each network, the report says. Both ESPN and TNT doubled the number of games broadcasted nationally from 27 to 54 games, which in turn brought along an expected, but nevertheless disappointing, drop in average viewership.
Combined with media blackouts in key regions for TNT and Sunday competition with the NFL for ESPN — neither of which factored into play due to no blackouts or weekend games to this point last year — and the cause behind the significant ratings drop becomes much clearer.
NHL U.S. TV national viewership is down 22% this season, per findings from @AustinKarp.
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.
— Mark J. Burns (@markjburns88) February 1, 2023
Interestingly, outside of game viewership, ESPN's partnership with the NHL appears to have made significant strides since last year’s All-Star break. The powerhouse network has reported positive gains in both online and app engagement with the NHL, while social media engagement around the NHL is up a staggering 224% year-over-year, the report says.
In the case of the rise in social media engagement, it seems likely that the introduction of fan voting via Twitter was an enormous success. Fans were able to use tweets, retweets, and hashtags to vote their players into hockey’s mid-season classic.
What else could be causing the ratings dip?
That doesn’t make the NHL’s drop in ratings any less concerning, however, even if they were somewhat expected by the major players. Beyond the report’s findings, other contributors to the league’s loss of viewership on the major networks likely boil down to a few key factors.
As a league composed of highly localized fanbases, at least relative to pro sports juggernauts like the NFL or NBA, significant markets plausibly have an oversized effect on the league’s ratings as a whole.
With big-market clubs like the Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers, and even the Pittsburgh Penguins struggling this season, it isn’t hard to imagine those markets disproportionately affecting matters.
The fragmentation and accessibility issues of the NHL’s product across different platforms, including regional sports networks like the reportedly bankrupt Bally Sports, or various ESPN+ exclusive NHL games, surely complicate matters as well. It only takes a brief perusal of a few online boards to see the frustration, and complication, those have likely caused. Not to mention, it requires a fairly modest leap to suggest that new fans have been shut out as a result of these restrictions as well.
For what it’s worth, fans across social media seem to have their own theories, and suggestions, as to why things have gone sour this year for the NHL on ESPN and TNT, and how they would fix things.
NHL had three one-goal games last night, two of which that went to OT. And they all started at 7pm EST
— David Raleigh (@david__raleigh) February 1, 2023
Bally owns coverage for, what, 19 teams. They limit distribution to only the most expensive cable networks with no streaming options. Bad matchups, poor announcers, digital ads cutting players’ heads off. Weird how that impacts ratings.
— Tyler (@tdeuce92) February 1, 2023
Anyone talking about Bettman growing the sport is totally missing how left in the dust the NHL has been by its faster-growing competitors. Honestly not sure “competitors” is the right word anymore. pic.twitter.com/ObqxAdyRPx
— good tweet pete 🌮 (@peterhassett) February 1, 2023
1. Make the sport more accessible to view with no blackouts
2. Remove awful digital boards
3. Allow players to have personality by wearing more adventurous fashion choices and asking better interview questions
4. Hire new TV hosts. Like Subban.
5. Stop allowing blatant homophobia
— Avery (@whoisthisavery) February 1, 2023
The board ads are so nauseating that when it's a game in which I have no dog in the race I tune out. Having your eyes taken off the action every few seconds to see some bouncy corporate logo just isn't worth the trouble if I don't care about the game to begin with.
— Dr. Grizzo (PhD, MD, BA, MBA, 7'4 240 IQ) (@mrgrozz) February 1, 2023
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