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NHL Ratings Are Not Your Problem

MONTREAL, CANADA - JANUARY 24: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the media prior to the game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins at Centre Bell on January 24, 2023 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Boston Bruins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

You didn't pay much attention to this story because (a) why would you? and (b) see (a). But HockeyWorld was aflutter about the news that ESPN/TNT ratings for its NHL TV packages are down 22 percent from last year, and this became a new stalking horse for kneeing Gary Bettman in the junction as he begins his second 30-year reign as the longest surviving commissioner on earth. Getting the teams on ESPN was one of his babies, just like the Arizona Coyotes, and you know how well that's gone—find an abandoned Costco, slap up a few hundred chairs, ice up the floor, and enjoy the fun.

Now there are valid reasons for the drop, as outlined rather exhaustively by The Athletic's Sean Gentille, but here's an alternate lens: Why would anyone who isn't a network executive (ick) or Bettman (bleargh) care? This is always a stupid hill for anyone else to even stub their toe on, let alone die. Nobody defends hills to the death any more—they level them and then put an unnecessary 21,000-seat arena on top of them.

Ratings have always been a way to point at people and either scold them for not contributing to their improvement (like the NBA, NHL, or MLB), or rave about them and infer that you suck if if you aren't part of the cool-kids brigade or the greater hive mind (like the NFL, WNBA, and whatever the ratings are for tennis, auto racing, pickleball or, and though nobody asked for this, the return of arena football). They are there to set ad rates, and you hate commercials, so figure out the Venn diagram on that one.

The ratings aren't your problem, ever. If you want to watch a game, you can find it. You can decide whether you want to pay for it, convince your friends or your bar to pay for it, or just pirate outright, but it will be there. And that's what you're in it for. Whether the Winnipeg Jets make the most amount of money possible from their showdown with the Calgary Flames is David Thomson's problem, not yours, and he's already got a $54 billion head start on you. It's his job to worry, not yours.

And don't fret that you'll lose the games if the ratings continue to sink. They’ll never sink that low, because media rights are what keeps the whole dirigible from crashing into the parade below. The games are everywhere because there's no need to have a league if people won't pay to watch it. Even the fears that the regional sports networks are dying and potentially costing your local team rights fees aren't your issue. It's their issue, and if the regionals die off, the teams will come up with some other way to crowbar your wallet out of your hands. They're better at that than making the playoffs.

Indeed, the only way that ratings affect you is if you're at your favorite tavern (or one of the lousier ones) and you want to watch Breanna Stewart's first game with the Liberty while all the other corpses-in-training at the bar want to watch Nationals-Brewers, and there's only one screen. Finish your drink, close your tab and find a bar with ESPN2 somewhere, or at least one that doesn't care as much about Brandon Woodruff v. Cade Cavalli.

So there's your summary of the NHL ratings crisis, which is to say, there isn't one, and has never been one. At least not for you. It will pass, or it won't, and you as the consumer will be stuck with higher prices by someone until it's someone else, until you decide some day that it's all too rich for your blood. That's the real problem that the leagues are struggling with: finding the price point that actually chases people away. You all know what a price point is—it's that red flag in your rear-view mirror, stuck in that abandoned hill upon which nobody has ever died.

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