Why Fluctuations in the Islanders' TV Ratings are Irrelevant to MSG Networks

On Wednesday the Sports Business Journal published an article on the NHL’s local TV ratings, detailing the top and bottom five teams in a number of categories. The Islanders came in 2nd to last in the league in ratings with a .23, down from a .32 last season.

Here’s a rundown of the team’s TV ratings on MSG over the past few years.
2011-12 (to date): .23
2010-11: .32
2009-10: .36
2008-09: .17

Those numbers are percentages of the total number of homes in the local area that are tuned into the Islanders. They seem to be fluctuating quite a bit and obviously a 23% drop this year is not good news. In fact, it’s completely irrelevant news.

Over the past five years, the Islanders have barely registered in the ratings. What does this mean for MSG Network? Not much, really. That’s part of the reason they can take such a hard stance with Time Warner because losing Time Warner’s viewership is less important than the money they would make if Time Warner were to cave to increased pricing demands. Meanwhile, the Rangers and Knicks are likely doing quite well in the ratings department (per usual) with the former seeing a substantial increase in the number of households tuning in. The increase in households this year is top five in the league according to SBJ, thanks to the Rangers’ excellent play thus far. With those two chips at their disposal, MSG can sit back and wait for Time Warner to cave and diehard viewers to switch providers, one of which is sister company Cablevision — at least that is their likely strategy.

Furthermore, that .23 rating doesn’t suffer from much of a ‘Time Warner drop.’ The provider dropped MSG from its lineup on January 1st, and it would take more than two-plus weeks of ratings in a 15-week old season to really put a dent in it.

To put the real significance of the Islanders quite simply, the Islanders are an afterthought in the advertising sales department of MSG, one of the two vehicles driving the network’s engine (the other being fees from subscribers). It’s not a matter of bias against the Islanders. It’s simply business. The Rangers do better than a 1.0 rating when they’re mediocre and that number likely increased twofold this year are doing more than three times as well, with nearly a .9 this year. The Isles’ meager ratings pale in comparison.

After college, I spent some time getting coffee working at the Garden. One of the tasks I performed was to compile ratings sheets for clients who had purchased advertising on MSG. MSG then takes these reports back to the clients to show how many people saw the ad spots. They usually guarantee the clients that the programming will hit a certain figure, .6 many times, and the client may be given additional spots if the numbers don’t hit. There’s also a minimum at play here. If a team doesn’t get above a .3 rating, it doesn’t even get marked on the ratings sheet and may be comped back at a later time. The Islanders don’t hit a .3 all that often, meaning there’s not much point in selling their ad time to begin with when the team isn’t any good, which is most of the time.

There are only two teams that matter in ad sales; the Rangers and the Knicks. The Islanders and Devils are complete non-factors. In fact, they are usually ‘value added’ to a sponsor’s package. Many, but not all, of the ads you see on Islanders telecast are throw-ins from some other media buy whether it’s signage or commercial spots for a different team’s broadcast.

MSG likes to have the Islanders and Devils on their network. Let’s be clear about that. They help in staying a step ahead of the competition (wouldn’t YES or SNY love to have some more winter programming?) and keeps their channel in demand. But don’t have any illusions as to whom among the four teams are the ones paying the bills.