Reality checked: NHL ratings, crowds shrink

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Hockey's quest to come back from a year in the cold is sputtering-and that has advertisers worried.

Almost a month after the National Hockey League re-opened for business, with new rules designed to make the game more exciting, the momentum of the opening week has given way to lower attendance and even lower ratings on the league's new cable network.

"What a year to not have your message seen," said the VP-marketing of one of the NHL's corporate sponsors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The league makes all these innovations in the game, but who's watching? And more importantly, who's not seeing what we have to say?"

ESPN out

The NHL returned Oct. 5 after having canceled the entire 2004-05 season due to labor strife. It was the first time an American pro sports league wiped out an entire season, and Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, which had televised the NHL for 12 years and was its most visible television partner in the U.S., declined to renew its option after offering a much lower rights fee.

The NHL still got what it wanted from a monetary standpoint: a two-year deal valued at $135 million. But it was with Comcast's OLN (formerly the Outdoor Life Network), a low-profile cable network with an audience that is about a third less than ESPN's.

According to Nielsen Media Research, the NHL is averaging a 0.3 household rating in the U.S., which is between 200,000 and 230,000 viewers in the U.S. That compares to the 0.5 it was getting in the '03-'04 season.

"We want to ride the wave with the NHL, we really do," said an executive at one of the league's other corporate partners. "But, yes, you could say there is a concern. We're not going anywhere, but we'll watch how it develops over the course of the season."

Most agree the NHL's rules changes on the ice have improved the game. Combined goals per game are up to 6.2, a 32% increase over the last full season. Shots per game are up 11%.

That, combined with the obvious anticipation from fans waiting for the game to return, helped the NHL to near 100% attendance in its first week back. It's steadily gone down since. Two weeks ago, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking at a conference in Canada, said, "For anybody to suggest two weeks into the season, when we're playing at 93% capacity, that there are trouble spots, I think is looking for a negative story that isn't there."

But now, nearly a month into the season, even big-market teams are struggling. Attendance has dipped for some teams into the 70% to 75% range. The New Jersey Devils, which drew 18,101 on opening night, drew just 11,484 for an Oct. 26 home game, a drop of nearly 35%.

Steady decline

The Carolina Hurricanes, which played for the Stanley Cup just three years ago, drew 18,787 for their opening game and 10,968 for their second game. The Washington Capitals drew 16,325 for their home opener and then watched as subsequent home games dwindled to 13,021, 10,760 and 10,394. One Washington Times reporter wrote that at one of those games there appeared to be no more than 5,000 actual attendees.

The NHL, which uses tickets distributed for its attendance figures, did not return a call.

"Look, you had to know it wasn't going to be gung-ho for the entire season like it was in the opening week," said sports marketing expert and University of Southern California professor David Carter, a principal at the Sports Business Group. "But should advertisers be concerned this early? Yeah, there should be some concern on their part."

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