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Scott D. Pierce: Big markets don't always mean big ratings

Published June 5, 2013 8:48 am

NHL • Los Angeles is hardly a hotbed for hockey playoffs on TV, but Chicago is.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Conventional television wisdom is that big TV markets mean big TV ratings. That you couldn't possibly do better than, say, a New York-Los Angeles final — in anything.

This line of reasoning has been used to justify keeping the Utah Jazz's national telecasts to a minimum; to all but ignore Real Salt Lake; and to often overlook Utah, BYU and Utah State when it comes to football and basketball.

There's a certain logic to it. If 5 percent of the homes in the Salt Lake TV market watch an RSL game, that's just about 46,000 homes. If 5 percent of the homes in the New York market watch the Red Bulls, that's more than 323,000 homes.

Clearly, that's a hypothetical situation. Major League Soccer rarely exceeds 300,000 viewers nationally, let alone in one market.

And that's the sort of thing you have to keep in mind about this big market-small market thing. It's not just about the number of people who live where a team is located — it's about whether the people who live there care about the team.

Case in point — the Los Angeles Kings.

They're the defending Stanley Cup champions. They're in the Western Conference finals, although they're down 2-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks. And there are clearly a whole lot more Chicagoans than Angelenos who care.

Just last week, the NBC Sports Network set a record with its telecast of Game 7 of the Chicago-Detroit series, drawing a 2.1 national rating and about 3.4 million viewers — NBCSN's best NHL numbers ever.

To put that in perspective, six months ago the most-watched show on NBCSN was "Hunt for Big Fish with Larry Dahlberg," which drew 177,000 viewers on a Sunday morning.

The NHL numbers are somewhat surprising given the lockout that canceled 40 percent of the regular season.

"While the lockout was unfortunate, we're seeing that hockey has some impressive momentum," NBC Sports president of programing Jon Miller told The Associated Press, exuding justifiable optimism.

That Blackhawks-Red Wings Game 7 drew a 17.2 rating in Chicago. (A rating point equals 1 percent of the homes in a TV market.) Last week's Game 7 drew a 15.0 rating in Detroit.

Because there are people in those cities who care about hockey.

Not so in Los Angeles. The rating there for Game 7 of the Kings-Sharks series was a 2.7 — just 16 percent of the rating for the corresponding game in Chicago.

The local rating in San Francisco was a 4.8. Nationally, about 2 million fewer people watched the Kings-Sharks game.

If all you want to do is look at market size, in the West it was No. 2 Los Angeles vs. No. 6 San Francisco (about 8.1 million homes combined); in the East it was No. 3 Chicago vs. No. 11 Detroit (about 5.3 million homes combined).

On paper, the West wins. In reality, the East won. And won big. Because there's more to this equation than just market size.

By the way, the 1998 NBA Finals — Jazz vs. Bulls — remain the highest-rated ever. The 1997 Finals featuring the same two teams is No. 3 on the list.

Clearly, Michael Jordan had a lot to do with that. But the presence of small-market Utah clearly didn't hurt as much as some TV executives still want to believe.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter: @ScottDPierce. —