NHL Looks for TV Viewers as Playoffs Start

The NHL playoffs are here: the teams are plentiful, but the TV viewers are not. The state of the NHL is a mixed bag, with growing crowds and declining television ratings.

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Time now for sports. The NHL playoffs are here and many teams had moved on to the second round. Last night, the Buffalo Sabres beat the New York Islanders 4-3 to advance. In the West, the most exciting match up is the series between the Detroit Red Wings and the Calgary Flames, which is tied at two games each. The teams meet this afternoon in Detroit. Who cares, you ask? Apparently, not very many people, judging by the TV ratings.

Joining us now is our own Ron, smooth-as-ice, Rapoport. Good morning, Ron.

RON RAPOPORT: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now we're talking nearly immeasurable ratings. How small are they?

RAPOPORT: Well, let me put it this way, Linda. NBC showed a few games last season and got their worst primetime ratings in 30 years. So far this year, the playoff ratings are worse.

WERTHEIMER: Oh my gosh.

RAPOPORT: Richard Sandomir pointed out in the New York Times this week the NBC's broadcast of the National Heads-Up Poker Championship last Sunday to a bigger audience in the game between Calgary and Detroit that followed it.

WERTHEIMER: Oh my gosh.

RAPOPORT: Do you know the name of the network that shows most of the NHL games in the U.S.?

WERTHEIMER: I confess that I do not.

RAPOPORT: The - I need for a second to look it up, and I'm not sure where it is in my dial. It's something called Versus, a cable network that only reaches 72 million homes. The league says it's hoping to build its audience through its Web site and YouTube, Linda. This is not exactly the NFL model we're talking about, is it?

WERTHEIMER: Was hockey ever a big draw for TV viewers?

RAPOPORT: Well theā€¦

WERTHEIMER: Was it big?

RAPOPORT: Yeah, the ratings are almost twice as good when the games were on ESPN a couple of years ago. But then ESPN wanted to cancel its upfront payments, said let's, sort of, have a pay-as-you-go thing. And the league said, no, thanks. And they went to this network with far less visibility that, at least, pays them something upfront, about $2 million a year.

WERTHEIMER: Presumably, the NHL financers do not compare to other sports.

RAPOPORT: Well, they wouldn't want to make that comparison, of course. But by their own standards are not so bad. Since the lockout a couple of years ago, attendance is up, scoring is up, revenue at the arenas is up. The big problem is television. But, you know, you almost have to feel sorry for them. They can't seem to get a break this year.

Sidney Crosby in the Penguins - he's the hottest young player in the league -and their scoring leader were knocked out in the first round. And as you pointed out, the league is nervously watching the Red Wings, one of its marquee teams. If they did catch a break instead of the Rangers, who won their first round and there's nothing like a New York television audience to boost national ratings.

WERTHEIMER: Ron, before we go, what will you be watching today? Hockey? Basketball? Baseball? What?

RAPOPORT: Let me see. A-Rod vs. the Red Sox, Cardinals vs. the Cubs, Heat vs. the Bulls, who'd you say was playing in the hockey, again?

WERTHEIMER: Ron Rapoport, always a pleasure.

RAPOPOPRT: Good to talk to you.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: And this is NPR News.

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