Heading into their final regular season games last week, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League posted the highest average cable TV regional sports network rating for any United States-based baseball, basketball, or hockey team in more than a decade. Penguins games, broadcast on Root Sports Network in Pittsburgh, averaged a 12.56 Nielsen rating, which would be the highest for any hockey team on record, and the highest rating since the 2002 Seattle Mariners of the MLB, who averaged 13.2 on Fox Sports Northwest.
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Before this year, the highest RSN rating in the last five years came in San Antonio for the 2010-11 season, when Spurs games on FS Southwest averaged a 10.19 rating. Before that, the Boston Red Sox averaged a 12.20 average on NESN for the 2007 season, the year in which they won their second World Series title of the decade.
For comparison’s sake, during Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98, the Bulls finished the year with an 8.9 average local rating on FSN Chicago.
How big is the Penguins’ 12.56 rating? The team has nearly doubled its TV audience since the 2008-09 season, moving from an average of 74,000 homes to an average of 146,000 homes.
During the last five weeks of the season, the rest of the league’s U.S.-based teams posted local ratings that were flat or declined. The Penguins, however, saw a 6 percent increase.
“The story has been wonderful since we trudged through the lockout and dropped the puck on the season,” said Shawn McClintock, senior vice president and general manager of Root Sports. “Sports fans in the city of Pittsburgh are incredibly passionate, loyal and knowledgeable.”
The Penguins’ TV ratings were helped by the team having compelling story lines throughout the NHL’s lockout-shortened season. Despite stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang all missing substantial time with injuries, the Penguins finished second overall in the league, behind only the record-setting Chicago Blackhawks, and first in the Eastern Conference. Before he suffered a broken jaw on March 30, Crosby was the NHL’s leading scorer with 56 points (15 goals, 41 assists) in 36 games.
While traditionally strong, the Penguins’ TV numbers reached historic levels this season. Sixteen of the 20 highest-rated Penguins games of all time occurred this season, McClintock said. The other four were historically memorable games: Mario Lemieux’s return in 2000; the closing of Mellon Arena in 2010; and Crosby’s two returns from injury last year.
Other top NHL teams included the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild.