- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

No Shaq. No Kobe. No Mario. And no ratings.

The NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals, won Monday night by the New Jersey Devils over the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, posted an average viewership of 3.1million households for Games 3-7 on ABC. The total, reflecting a paltry rating of 2.9, is 19 percent lower than last year’s and believed to be the lowest of any Cup finals shown on network TV.

Meanwhile, the ongoing NBA Finals between the New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs is trailing the viewership for last year’s finals by 38 percent — and that 2002 series was easily the least-watched since the event moved to prime time in 1982.

The jarring drop in ratings for the championship series of America’s two leading winter sports, both being aired on ABC, is highlighting a dramatic shift in domestic sports viewing habits. The mighty NFL continues to retain and build audiences, and NASCAR is similarly adding fans in a depressed TV environment. Major golf tournaments with Tiger Woods in contention are a proven draw. But nearly every other major sports entity is grappling with the grim reality of plummeting ratings, and the NBA and NHL are now leading the pack.

“I’m a little surprised at what’s happening, but both sports have now essentially become cable entities,” said Bill Carroll, vice president of Katz Television Group in New York, which advises network affiliate stations. “You add in the fact the lack of major market stars and some of the lackluster play, and you’re going to do cable-like ratings. If these games actually had all been on ESPN or TNT, we’d be talking about some of the biggest ratings in cable history.”

The NBA foresaw that shift and last year moved much of its regular-season and early-round playoff action from network to cable, with the two-pronged goal of reaching basketball fans in a more targeted fashion and increasing the league’s overall broadcast revenues. The strategy worked for the most part; the NBA games beat the programming they replaced on ESPN and TNT. ABC trailed NBC’s regular-season average ratings from a year ago almost solely because of this spring’s war against Iraq.

But with the Spurs-Nets series airing entirely on prime-time network TV and the war over, the expectations are entirely different. A mass audience is expected and paid for when sponsors purchase ads. What viewers and sponsors have received in return is a series with plenty of sloppy, dull play and no bona fide superstars. Even Spurs owner Peter Holt admitted that portions of the series have been lousy. Spurs forward Tim Duncan is the reigning league MVP but by no means a figure resonating in pop culture like Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant.

“Jason Kidd and Duncan are great players but just not on the same level of Shaq and Kobe for drawing viewers,” said Ray Dundas, senior vice president and group director of national broadcast for Initiative Media. “There’s just no huge, flamboyant stars leading this series. And the scores of these games are more like college games. There’s just not a lot of hype here.”

Even with the Lakers in the NBA Finals from 2000 to 2002, the event has lost roughly half its average audience since the Michael Jordan heydays of the late 1990s.

The NBA Finals has been beaten in ratings by repeats of three different variations of the “Law & Order” franchise, as well as the Miss Universe pageant. The Stanley Cup Finals has been thrashed by critical low-lights like “Baby Bob” and “Stupid Behavior: Caught on Tape.”

The NHL also airs nearly all of its action on local and national cable. But the Stanley Cup Finals is hockey’s leading moment in the national spotlight, and the NHL similarly stumbled. A seven-game thriller between the Devils and Mighty Ducks featured two overtime games, plenty of drama and the emergence of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and still failed to captivate viewers.

“Hockey is hugely successful as a regional draw, but I think it’s kind of dead on a national level,” Dundas said.

ABC’s response to all the lowly numbers has been to point out its numerous time slot wins vs. other network competition, as well as the heavy improvement shown by the NBA vs. the programming it replaced.

“With the hockey, we obviously wish the numbers were higher. We had two great markets and an exciting series,” ABC vice president Mark Mandel said. “We got a decent Game 7 number [more than 4.5 million households], so we’re hoping for some carryover into next year.

“As far as the NBA, we don’t you think you compare us to last year, when the finals were on [NBC]. All we know is that we have improved dramatically versus this time last year, and we love having the NBA,” Mandel said.

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