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Alphabet’s game plan strikes out

Lack of marquee teams, ABC decisions factored into ratings

HOLLYWOOD — New Jersey has been the butt of many jokes over the years, but ABC wasn’t laughing when the Garden State showed up in both its NBA and Stanley Cup Finals.

The proud owner of television rights to the championship rounds of both professional basketball and hockey for the first time, the Alphabet net was saddled with New Jersey’s Nets and Devils — teams without much of a following nationally.

Add into the mix the small-market San Antonio Spurs on the basketball side (and not the Lakers for the first time in four years) and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks of all teams on the hockey side, and one could say ABC was cursed.

But while it’s easy to blame this month’s soft NHL and NBA ratings on a lack of marquee teams, there are other factors to blame — some within ABC’s control, some outside of it.

Through three games, the NBA Finals in their first year on the Alphabet web were averaging a 3.9 rating/13 share in adults 18-49 and 9.5 million viewers overall, according to Nielsen, down 40% from last year on NBC.

Of course, the Nets and Spurs didn’t exactly spring into these Finals, with each easily winning their conferences and then waiting more than a week to the start the championship. Contrast this to a year ago, when Game 7 of the West final between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings delivered huge ratings on NBC and provided momentum for the net’s coverage of the Finals.

It also didn’t help momentum that much of this postseason (including the West final) aired on cable, limiting the number of people who could watch nationally.

Let’s also hope ABC has learned something about tipoff times.

Net started most of its late Sunday playoff games at 3:30 ET or earlier (NBC opted for 5:30 ET), missing out on the opportunities for overruns into primetime — something the Peacock used effectively.

ABC wants affils to run its evening newscast prior to Sunday’s primetime, but this is something it needs to look at changing. Especially now that the “Wonderful World of Disney” movie franchise has been moved from Sunday, ABC is in a position to better use the NBA as a kickoff to its primetime lineup in the spring.

And in the Finals, ratings would likely improve if the games started later than the 8:30 ET that ABC went with this time around. In recent years, NBC went with a 9:15 ET tipoff, which especially makes sense when a West Coast team is involved.

Hockey, meanwhile, remains ABC’s equivalent of its drama “Alias”: You know a core audience loves it, but it’s unlikely to ever become a much more popular draw than it is.

This year’s Finals (ABC aired the last five games of the seven-game series) averaged a 2.0/7 in 18-49 and 4.4 million viewers overall, down about 20% from last year’s Detroit Red Wings-Carolina Hurricanes matchup. This despite Game 7 becoming the most-watched pro hockey game Stateside in at least 16 years (7.17 million viewers).

League is said to be considering ways to boost scoring (larger goals, for example) after three of the first four games ended in shutouts.

What it really needs to boost tune-in levels and excitement is for matchups pitting teams with history and national appeal (the Chicago Blackhawks against the Boston Bruins, for example). This year’s New Jersey-Anaheim matchup was a suburban step-down from what the league and network would really like to see: The New York Rangers against the Los Angeles Kings.

It’s disappointing hockey hasn’t been able to make a ratings push despite the fact the last 10 finals have featured U.S. teams only.

A matchup pitting the Ottawa Senators against the Vancouver Canucks, for example, would have ABC begging for a return trip to Jersey.

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