While early ratings for ESPN's National Hockey League postseason telecasts are down slightly, executives were encouraged last week that the games drew a significant percentage of the advertiser-coveted young-male audience.
Through five first-round playoff games, ESPN's NHL-playoff ratings were averaging a 0.64, down 4 percent from four games into last year's playoffs, according to the network.
After 11 first-round games, ESPN2's NHL-playoff ratings slipped 7 percent to a 0.48, compared with a 0.55 rating after 11 games in the same time period last year.
More important, executives said, was the significant increase in playoff viewership among males aged 18 to 34. Ratings for that group rose 70 percent over last season's playoff telecasts on ESPN. They were up an impressive 66 percent on ESPN2.
The elusive and active young-male viewer has been a difficult target for both networks and advertisers. It's been especially difficult for most professional-sports leagues, which have seen the average age of their viewers rise over the past few years as younger people seek other entertainment options, such as the Internet.
"The real story has been the significant increase in men 18 to 34," ESPN vice president of research, sales and development Artie Bulgrin said. "Our focus has been to nurture the Gen X'and Gen Y'audience, and we've accomplished that with the NHL."
The numbers mirrored ESPN's regular-season performance, which saw ratings for young men increase 35 percent (from 0.52 to 0.70) versus last season. Further, ESPN's regular-season primetime ratings increased 37 percent (from 0.52 to 0.71) over last year's.
Overall, ESPN's regular-season NHL ratings averaged a 0.62, up 5 percent from last season for the same number of telecasts.
"The [NHL] story has been outstanding for ESPN. Viewers clearly responded to the games and to the extensive cross-promotion between ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC," Bulgrin said.
As the playoffs enter later rounds, ESPN believes ratings will at least pull even with last year's numbers, if not surpass them, while maintaining young males' attention.
"We can be very optimistic because we've been able to move the needle up during the regular season, especially since we had so much competition from the National Basketball Association, as well as from nonsports shows such as [Who Wants to Be a Millionaire] and The Sopranos," Bulgrin said.
NHL regular-season ratings didn't suffer as a result of the industry's acquisition of the "NHL Center Ice" pay-per-view package, Bulgrin said. The package-which offered about 30 games per week-was distributed through PPV network In Demand to about 3 million to 4 million digital-cable households beginning in February.