With NHL playoff viewership down nearly two-thirds across Canada, Scott Moore, the television executive who committed Toronto-based Sportsnet to a 12-year, multibillion-dollar broadcasting rights agreement, said he is "disappointed but not panicked" by the ratings returns a little over a week into the league's first postseason in 46 years without a Canadian team.
The first-round playoff series being broadcast on Sportsnet's cable channels and CBC drew an average of about 500,000 viewers from April 13-17. That's down from about 1.3 million over the same period last year, when five of Canada's seven teams were competing.
The drop in numbers is happening two years into Sportsnet's a $5.2 billion (Canadian) deal in which it acquired the NHL's English-language broadcasting rights north of the border. The agreement includes the cable company controlling advertising and production rights of games shown on CBC, the nation's public broadcaster.
Moore said he isn't surprised Canadians are tuning out on their national pasttime because there are no "home" teams competing. He said the drop in numbers is no different in the United States when Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays or NBA Toronto Raptors make the playoffs.
By comparison, the ratings north of the border are still outpacing those in the U.S.
NBC announced that the first eight days of the playoffs have drawn and average 484,000 viewers. That's up by about 30,000 over that same last year, but pales in comparison to Canada and its population-base of 35 million.
Looking ahead, Moore cites competitive parity in the NHL's salary-cap system as the reason he expects the cross-border playoff imbalances to even out over the length of the TV contract.
"If this was a three-year deal or a five-year deal, I think we'd be more concerned," Moore said. "But I'd rather this occurred in Year 6 of the deal and after we had a couple of Toronto-Edmonton Stanley Cup finals so that people would understand that, over the course of the 12-year deal, things will even out."
Moore is encouraged that the Toronto Maple Leafs might finally be showing signs of having direction under a new regime led by team president Brendan Shanahan. And he doesn't believe the Montreal Canadiens' injury troubles will carry over into next season.
The Maple Leafs, who have made the playoffs just once in the past 11 years, have the potential of drawing 3 million viewers, with the Canadiens second at 2.5 million, Moore said.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman isn't concerned about lagging Canadian viewership.
"When you look at a first round where you go from having five Canadian teams to none, you're going to see an impact in ratings," Bettman told a meeting of Associated Press Sports Editors on Friday. "Let's see what it looks like as it goes on. If we get a great Stanley Cup Final, I'm sure hockey fans from all over will find it compelling and will watch."
"Yeah, we'd love to have that," Moore said.
Ratings weren't the only TV-related issue Bettman addressed at the league's headquarters.
The commissioner took issue with criticisms raised over late starting times by Blackhawks broadcaster Pat Foley during Chicago's 4-3 double-overtime victory over St. Louis on Thursday night. Foley said players and fans hate games starting at 9:42 p.m. EDT, which lead to having regulation approach midnight.
Bettman said the NHL staggers the start of games so they don't overlap. He also noted NBA playoff games start at 9 p.m., and the NFL's Sunday night games kickoff at 8:30 p.m..
"That everybody hates it, it was, I think, off the mark," Bettman said, saying Blackhawks President John McDonough called him to say he wasn't happy with Foley's comments. "If we put all the games on at the same time, I guarantee you, we'd be criticized for that."