Many believe Flyers fans are expressing their distaste with the team’s seeming perpetual mediocrity both at the box office and with their remote control.
In short, the arguments have been that clusters of empty seats at the Wells Fargo Center for playoff games coupled with declining TV ratings mean that apathy has set in among the Orange and Black faithful, who not so many years ago were dubbed “stepford fans” for being robotically conformist to whatever the organ-eye-zation did and said.
Maybe the fan base is changing. Maybe Millennial fans are not like their Gen-X predecessors or the original Baby Boomers who made Philadelphia akin to a Canadian city when it came to hockey fandom.
Maybe they are getting tired of mediocrity. Maybe they are more discerning about how they are going to spend their entertainment dollars than those fans that came before them.
And then I saw this series of Tweets traipse down my Twitter timeline the other day – the first from a Canadian reporter who does some work for the New York Times (quoting Sports Business Journal), and then the rest from the site manager of Broad Street Hockey, the SB Nation fan site, and her cohorts:
No U.S.-based NHL team had higher local reg.-season TV ratings than the Pittsburgh Penguins this year.
Lowest TV ratings? Anaheim.
Biggest gainer? Preds.
Biggest decline? NY Rangers.
Interesting data from team at @sbjsbd pic.twitter.com/oM0CRvHDPz
— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) April 24, 2018
This is not going to make Comcast happy. Weird what happens when your team is boring and painful to watch! https://t.co/c9ugHSByBa
— Steph Driver (@StephaliciousD) April 24, 2018
Then they must make changes if they truly care about viewership ratings. Down 25% calls for lower advertisement rates, etc. https://t.co/F8zp4pFKka
— Bill Waterbury (@billdubs) April 24, 2018
And yet BSH Radio ratings went up like 500%. People love the team, love the sport, are begging for change.
— Bill Matz (@BILLadelphia1) April 24, 2018
25% over the season? That's more than one event
— Steph Driver (@StephaliciousD) April 24, 2018
I believe it, this team was absolutely bruuuuutal
— Steph Driver (@StephaliciousD) April 24, 2018
Now, it’s important that I point this out, because a lot of Flyers fans do go to Broad Street Hockey for information. And they do have a solid, historical track record of providing their followers with accurately accrued information.
But, my spidey-sense was tingling much like @dps2002, and I assumed there was more to this story than meets the eye. So I decided to look into it.
And what I found was that nothing that was being presented in the Tweets above as far as explanations for why the TV ratings were down 25% was anywhere close to accurate.
Flyers interest hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s, in fact, right where it’s been.
How do I know this? I went right to the source.
But before we go there…
First, let’s talk about the TV ratings.
Those published in Sports Business Journal, are, in fact, accurate.
The Flyers did see a dip in household ratings viewership by 25% for the season. That was the fifth-largest dip in the NHL this season among the 23 measured U.S.-based teams (information for the Carolina Hurricanes is not included, nor for the seven Canadian teams as their ratings are measured differently).
And while that might seem terrible, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
See, it’s a bit complex.
First, how are these ratings determined?
Well, they are done using the out-dated Nielsen ratings system. It’s a system where a very small sample size of TV watchers have their home televisions monitored by a Nielsen box, or diary. And if a handful of Nielsen boxes/diaries are moved in a market it could affect ratings numbers without really changing the number of actual viewers.
This goes for any televised event, not just Flyers hockey. If I were a Nielsen family, the Philadelphia sports teams would see a spike in ratings. But, if my box were moved to my neighbor’s television – and they don’t watch any sports at all – the ratings would change toward the negative.
It’s an antiquated system. It needs to be revamped. Nowadays, with so much done digitally, ratings can be done directly through cable boxes. And although it still wouldn’t be perfect (because of cord-cutters) it would be incredibly more accurate than Nielsen.
So there’s that.
Now, ratings points. Each rating point represents 28,000 households. The Flyers, this season, according the NHL, had an average rating of 2.0 per televised regular season game on their regional sports network (RSN) NBC Sports Philadelphia. So, that’s 56,000 households. Remember that number.
Now, there are a lot of factors that will swing that rating higher or lower for a given game. For instance, if the Flyers are on the West Coast, with a 10:30 p.m. start, that number is likely going to be lower. However, if the Flyers are playing the Penguins, that number is sure to be higher.
Also keep in mind that these ratings are only for games on RSNs and do not count games that air nationally. The Flyers get a fair share – dare I say lion’s share – of national games.
Additionally, there are games that are contractually obligated to be moved off of their main RSN channel and placed on a secondary channel (NBC Sports Plus) because of conflicts with the Sixers. This too has an effect on the numbers – especially this year, where interest in the Sixers has skyrocketed.
That said, the Flyers’ Nielsen Rating for the RSN was 2.5 in 2016-17 as compared to 2.0 in 2017-18.
The difference in that half a rating point is about 14,000 households.
What should be noted here, is the Flyers saw an 87% increase in streaming viewership, and that number is expected to continue to rise – as more options become available to cord cutters to watch the games. That increase, which is nearly 7,000 unique streams per game, makes up for about half of that lost TV audience.
To be clear, unique streams don’t directly correlate to a TV viewer, as time spent watching is an important factor as well. But you get the point– there was a non-insignificant increase.
Another thing with ratings in general is they change as a game goes on – depending on the competitiveness of the game. There weren’t any available breakdowns of this on average for the Flyers this season, but the Flyers’ streams this season averaged 375,000 minutes consumed per game, which was an increase of 80% over the 2016-17, which makes sense with the 87% increase in streaming audience.
Additionally, since the Nielsen rating system is so old, there is always a margin of error, again based on the small sample size. Nielsen will tell you that margin of error should be around 10% (although, there are some that will tell you it’s far worse than that).
So, if we’re doing math, and trusting Nielsen’s data, the margin of error of 10% for the Flyers, would be akin to 0.2 rating points, or about 5,600 households. Now, this goes both ways and doesn’t necessarily indicate a gain or loss, but it’s good to consider when discussing a decline that now appears to be around 7,000, just outside the margin.
The point is– there’s a holistic view to be taken here which accounts for much more than team performance. Notice how other major markets, like New York, Chicago and Detroit experienced similar declines? Setting aside the performance of teams, there is a change in viewing habits across the board. Even those markets with the highest ratings experienced some level of decline. And the markets that did see increases, with the exception of Nashville, were starting from lower numbers, which are thus easier to increase.
I talked to Shawn Tilger, the Flyers Chief Operating Officer, and he was quite happy with where the Flyers broadcasting situation is currently.
“With the evolution of streaming and broadcasting you have to look at everything holistically to get a true feel for the number of people viewing the games,” he said. “We are almost identical to [2016-17] and advertising revenues are in good shape.”
“I look at it differently – we have a whole other value proposition for advertising partners that wasn’t there before.”
And one very important figure for the Flyers in relation to advertisers is their rating among their key demographic – men between the ages of 25 and 54.
Their rating this season in that demographic was 2.61, an ever-so-slight decline from 2.64 (1%) in 2016-17 and well-within the Nielsen 10% margin of error.
Tilger went on to add even more interesting data that I didn’t have previously.
He pointed out that the Flyers rank No. 6 in terms of household ratings among U.S. teams. This is behind Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, Minnesota and Boston.
It should be pointed out that in those first three cities, hockey is the only winter sport in town. The Wild, Bruins and Flyers have to “compete” with the NBA, which makes their totals all the more impressive since several of their games are sure to come at the same time their basketball brethren are playing on another channel, which splits the fan base’s attention. Throw in Villanova, which attracted some level of eyeballs this winter, and an Eagles run that drew attention away from the Flyers in general, and you begin to understand how their rating is actually pretty impressive.
The Flyers also rank fifth among U.S. teams in total viewership and ranked in the top five regionally among all programs viewed on television during their time slot in 72% of their games in 2017-18.
And just to show that there is a larger audience still out there for the Flyers to target – especially on the streaming front – the television ratings for the first round playoff series against Pittsburgh doubled to 4.0 for the series.
“I don’t see any change or decline in the interest whatsoever from the fans,” Tilger said. “You just have to use so many different tools to determine whats going on – the website, social media rankings – there so many different options for fans now.”
One place the Flyers saw their ratings increase was on radio. Arbitron numbers are harder to come by, so I don’t have specifics for you, but I can tell you that the Flyers had better ratings for games this season than last.
I talked to a radio industry source about why that is, and he confirmed my suspicion that the success of the Eagles and Sixers this fall/winter has been a boon for sports talk radio – and although 94 WIP is crushing 97.5 the Fanatic in the latest ratings book (according to the source), the Fanatic still experienced ratings increases over the previous year thanks to the success of those teams.
What ends up happening is people listening to talk radio tend to leave the station on, which gives the radio broadcasts of games a stronger lead in then they are used to, thus improving ratings for the games.
When I asked Tilger about this, he didn’t deny it.
“It’s good for everybody when all the city’s teams are doing well, that’s for sure,” he said.
So, that notion that Flyers fans have become apathetic? Don’t buy it.
The belief that they won’t watch because they think the team is boring? Not true. The team might well be boring, but fans aren’t turning away because of it.
But, there is a paradigm shift in how games are consumed. There are apps with gamecasts and live audio feeds. There are the streams. There are those who follow exclusively on social media.
In fact, a real argument can be made that more people are paying attention now than ever before, just in a variety of ways – and the Flyers see that and embrace it.
“In today’s world, people have the ability to have instant gratification,” Tilger said. “We’re eliminating the obstacles of the people’s busy lives and giving them an opportunity to watch games when they’re not at home.
“I don’t see TV taking a backseat in any fashion any time soon, I just see the ability for options to allow all viewing platforms to continue growing – you can be anywhere and watch the game as it’s happening. It’s good for fans, corporate partners, RSN’s – it’s good for everybody.”
Now as for those empty seats in the Wells Fargo Center….
Well, that’s a story that needs to be told too – and it’s not necessarily what people in the general public believe.
I’ll have that story for you too, very soon.
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