TNT’s stewardship of live NHL games has proved to be something of a soft launch, as the network’s preexisting contract with All Elite Wrestling has made for a whole lot of late puck drops in the Eastern time zone.
Turner Sports has scheduled its NHL Wednesdays around the primetime AEW: Dynamite show, a move that has pushed hockey into the late-night time slot. Over the course of its eight standalone NHL telecasts, which kick off each week at 10:15 p.m. ET, TNT has averaged 235,625 viewers, a rather anemic result given the size of the lead-in audience. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the AEW: Dynamite installments preceding TNT’s NHL coverage averaged 911,875 viewers, nearly four times the turnout for the late hockey telecasts.
Because former rights holder NBCSN started its Wednesday night hockey slate at 8 p.m. ET, there aren’t many viable comparisons between TNT’s late NHL deliveries and the results from fall 2019. The only analogous telecast on the books is a 9:45 p.m. Flyers-Avalanche game that NBCSN produced on Dec. 11, 2019: Colorado’s 3-1 victory on home ice averaged 351,000 in the back half of a doubleheader. This week’s comparable Kraken-Ducks telecast averaged 236,000 viewers, which marks a 33% decline versus the pre-pandemic delivery.
TNT’s results were considerably stronger in its two primetime NHL telecasts, as its Oct. 13 Rangers-Capitals opener scared up 817,000 viewers and the following week’s goal-happy shootout between the Bruins and Flyers averaged 542,000 viewers. Both games began at 7:40 p.m. ET.
Lead-ins, no matter how big, only pay off when the respective target audiences are simpatico. In this particular case, the Venn diagram of AEW enthusiasts and NHL fans looks like a toppled snowman. If accommodating AEW has hampered TNT’s early NHL efforts, the worst of it will be over soon, as the wrestling program will move to its new home on TBS as of Jan. 5. Once the Dynamite block is out of the way, TNT will go forward with a weekly slate of NHL doubleheaders.
Despite the scheduling snares, advertisers have snapped up the bulk of TNT’s in-game spots, leaving Turner Sports chief revenue officer Jon Diament with a limited cache of available NHL inventory. Diament’s stock is so well-sold that advertisers looking to pick up scatter units may have to wait until around the halfway mark of the second quarter—which is to say, at the start of the postseason.
Disney also has sold out its regular-season NHL package. In the early going, ESPN+ and Hulu have hosted much of the media giant’s hockey coverage, although the linear TV deliveries have been promising. ESPN, which posted its largest audience (984,000 viewers) on Opening Night, averaged 677,250 viewers over its first four NHL telecasts, while ABC drew the biggest audience for a Black Friday game in five years. The broadcaster’s first NHL game since 2004, the Rangers-Bruins post-Thanksgiving showdown averaged 1.23 million viewers.
Among ESPN/ABC’s top NHL advertisers are Discover, Dunkin’ and Jägermeister, while the studio sponsors include Fidelity, Progressive and Lexus.
While the AEW workaround has put the freeze on TNT’s initial hockey deliveries, media buyers say that the Wednesday night ratings have been consistent with the guarantees the network offered its NHL advertisers. For Diament, the single-headers have allowed the Turner Sports team the latitude to “learn to walk before we run.” As this is the first time in its 33-year history that TNT has produced, televised and sold the NHL, a gradual immersion into all things hockey may be seen as less of a bug than a feature.
Thus far, TNT’s biggest NHL backers have included official league sponsors Geico, Verizon, FanDuel and Discover, while non-affiliated biggies, such as Walmart, Progressive, Domino’s and DraftKings, also have made a dent in the airtime. Diament said that Discover amounts to a big get for TNT, as the financial services brand was never a regular advertiser prior to Turner Sports’ $1.6 billion NHL rights deal. Another high-end newcomer is the intermission report sponsor Lexus. According to iSpot.tv estimates, the luxury automaker, which didn’t spend a dime on TNT in 2020, has invested nearly $1 million with the network since the NHL deal was secured.
Approximately 75% of TNT’s NHL advertisers already had significant long-term partnerships with the cable channel prior to the launch of its NHL block.
Diament said that while he hopes the scatter market picks up again when the time comes for him to start selling his first batch of NHL postseason telecasts, the enormity of Turner Sports’ upfront business has left him a bit out of the loop. “I’d heard it has simmered down a bit, but to be honest, I’m not really up to speed on what’s going on in the scatter market,” Diament said. “Between the NHL and NBA and March Madness, we sold so much upfront inventory that we really didn’t have to participate in scatter.”
The next NHL tent pole on the TNT slate is set for New Year’s Day, when the St. Louis Blues take on the Minnesota Wild in the 2022 Winter Classic. Two years ago, NBC’s coverage of the outdoor event averaged 1.96 million viewers.