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Alan Pergament: Sabres slip to No. 4 in NHL ratings; announcers not getting full Sahlen Field experience

Alan Pergament: Sabres slip to No. 4 in NHL ratings; announcers not getting full Sahlen Field experience

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This is a special edition of my former column, Sports on the Air:

Not surprisingly, Buffalo Sabres fans lost interest in the final 10 televised games of the National Hockey League season and that led to the team’s lowest-rated season in several seasons.

The final 10 games averaged about a 3.4 rating, which brought the season average of 56 games down to about a 4.3 rating.

The 51 games on MSG averaged a 4.27 rating, the four games on cable’s NBCSN a 5.0 (one was simulcast) and the two games on NBC affiliate WGRZ-TV averaged a 5.8 rating.

That is a huge decline from the 7.05 rating for the first 50 games of the abbreviated 2019-2020 season. The average for the entire 69-game season is unavailable but bound to have declined from the 7 rating.

This past season’s decline is even much larger when compared to the Sabres’ 8.1 average rating in the 2018-19 season.

But the rating for this disastrous season – which led to the Sabres winning the rights Wednesday to the No. 1 pick in the draft – was in the ballpark of the 4.8 average for the team's games in the 2017-18 season.

Of course, ratings are bound to substantially decline when a team finishes last in the NHL and undergoes a long winless streak.

Still, there are many prime-time broadcast network programs that don’t receive a live rating as high as 4.3.

The Sabres still do well ratings-wise compared to other NHL teams, but just not as well as they did when they were annually No. 1 or No. 2 among the 31 teams.

The Sports Business Journal reported recently that the Sabres TV ratings slipped to No. 4 in the NHL this past season, behind Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and St. Louis.

All those teams had one thing in common – they made the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Even with the Sabres’ last-place finish, the TV ratings here were only .01 behind third-place St. Louis.

However, it should be noted that a rating point in Buffalo is worth much fewer households than a point in most NHL markets.

A rating point in Buffalo, the No. 53 market, equals 5,285 households. A point in St. Louis, the No. 23 market, equals 11,172 households. A point in Pittsburgh, the No. 26 market, equals 10,408 households. A point in Las Vegas, the No. 40 market, equals 7,382 households.

In other words, the ratings between Buffalo and St. Louis are practically in a statistical tie, but St. Louis games enter about twice as many households.

Sahlen Field and Buffalo may receive some positive comments on the telecasts of road teams coming here to watch the Toronto Blue Jays play in their temporary home.

But the people calling the games aren’t here to have the full experience and share it with viewers back home.

According to Brad Bisbing, who oversees media relations for the Buffalo Bisons, none of the announcers from teams coming to Buffalo is scheduled to be here yet. Even the Blue Jays’ announcers are calling the games remotely.

The Blue Jays also don’t get many games on American television, which means the primary avenue to see the games and hear what is being said about Sahlen Field will be if you purchase a Major League Baseball television package.

Of course, New York Yankees games come into Western New York from the YES channel on cable, with some games also carried on WNYO-TV.

However, a YES spokesperson told me Wednesday that the plan remains for Yankee announcers to call the games against Toronto June 15-17 remotely and not come here.

Things could change quickly as coronavirus rates continue to decline, more people are vaccinated and Major League Baseball adjusts.

With the Buffalo Bills games approaching, there are numerous questions concerning media plans for the NFL season that are unanswerable right now. At least no one is commenting publicly about the plans.

As of now, sources tell me the Bills and Entercom, the owner of WGR radio don’t even have a deal in place to carry the games next season. Entercom owns the three strongest AM stations in the market – WGR, WBEN and WKBW – and radio companies are struggling nationally so the Bills wouldn’t seem to have any significant local alternatives.

Once Entercom and the Bills make the deal, one question is whether analyst Eric Wood will return to the booth. He was replaced by Steve Tasker last season, largely because of issues connected to Covid-19 protocols that made it difficult for Wood to do the games.

Another issue is whether play-by-play man John Murphy and the analyst will travel to road games or do them remotely off television monitors in Orchard  Park as they did last season.

There are obvious benefits for announcers to be at the games, including seeing the whole field and what is happening on the sidelines.

There is national speculation that some stations will prefer to continue to do the games remotely to save money, but it is unclear how much money can be saved.

The Bills announcers have flown to games on the team plane in the past, but that could be more difficult now due to the league’s Covid-19 protocols.

Another big issue potentially affecting all the media is whether reporters will be allowed in locker rooms again or if teams will continue to have players do Zoom interviews before or after games.

Reporters need better access to make connections with individual players and ask things privately to get beyond the shared sound bites offered via video calls.

Some reporters have openly complained that they haven’t even meet some of the key Bills they have covered, including wide receiver Stefon Diggs, and haven’t been able to speak privately with quarterback Josh Allen.

Reporters who cover the Sabres have had a similar problem. They were unable to speak to Jack Eichel. He addressed his “disconnection” with the organization in a Zoom interview after the season ended.

If the locker room had been open, there would have been a better chance for a reporter to be close enough to Eichel to know his feelings even if he only wanted to reveal them on background and not for attribution.

The less access reporters get often leads to less insight.

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TV Critic

Alan Pergament has had a variety of roles at The News since 1970, including as a news and sports reporter. He has been the TV columnist since 1982, with more than year off for good behavior. He is a member of the national Television Critics Association.

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