ESPN getting iced on hockeycasts

Even with more games, ratings down 18% on ESPN2

NEW YORK — The National Hockey League, which has abandoned gimmicks like the illuminated puck, continues to shed TV viewers on its national cablecasts.

As they kick off the five-year deal they signed a year ago, ESPN’s and ESPN2’s hockeycasts are down in Nielsen cable households. ESPN2 has plunged 18% year to year, from a 0.33 rating in cable homes for October to mid-December in 1998 (encompassing 24 games) to a 0.27 for the same period this year (covering 40 games).

ESPN transmits far fewer regular-season games than its ESPN2 kid brother, but it’s also off, by 9.6%, from a 0.62 rating in cable homes (October to mid-December 1998, for nine games) to a 0.56 rating (eight games during the same period this year).

$120 mil dilemma

These declining audiences sting because ESPN parent company Disney agreed to fork over $120 million a year for five years of exclusive national carriage of NHL games (including some coverage by ABC, also owned by Disney). The previous license fee of only $45 million a year was together shouldered by Fox and ESPN.

But an ESPN spokesman said the picture is not entirely bleak: Despite the decline in number of TV households watching the games, ratings among men 18-34 — the demographic most sought by ad-agency buyers — have actually increased somewhat for the hockey cablecasts during the past year.

Also, the comparison with last year’s Nielsens may be a little misleading, the spokesman said, as hockey ratings took a jump in 1998. A lockout of National Basketball Assn. players by team owners deprived sports fans of NBA games in November and December last year, driving some of them to watch hockey.

ESPN, which reaches 77 million households, is committed to carrying 27 regular-season NHL games each year, plus the Stanley Cup playoffs and the first two games of the finals. ESPN2, now in 67 million homes, will gorge itself on NHL regular-season games, carrying more than 170 a year.

ABC plans to carry between four and seven regular-season games, the All-Star Game, up to six weekends of early-round playoff coverage and up to five primetime games of the Stanley Cup finals.

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