Good Morning
Good Morning
SportsColumnistsNeil Best

TV ratings follow New York sports teams in standings

From left, MSG Network's Knicks post-game show with

From left, MSG Network's Knicks post-game show with Bill Pidto, Alan Hahn and Wally Szczerbiak in the MSG Network studio on Oct. 11, 2012. Credit: MSG

Losing isn't fun for fans. Talking about losing isn't fun for announcers.

"Honestly, it's been really tough,'' said Wally Szczerbiak, a Knicks studio analyst for MSG and a former star at Cold Spring Harbor High.

How could it not be? Szczerbiak and his colleagues have shown up night after night this season, faced with the task of making telecasts enjoyable to watch while at the same time educating fans about what has gone wrong.

"Obviously, when the team does great, it makes our job a lot easier,'' he said. "But when it doesn't go well, we still have to bring some good content.''

MSG has been far from alone in facing that challenge during what has been a famously grim 9 1/2 months for New York-area sports since the Knicks and Rangers were ousted from the playoffs last May.

At least fans have the power to turn the channel. For those in the business of bringing you the games, there is no escape from losing.

Take last baseball season. Please. The Yankees' average rating on YES plummeted to 2.62 percent of area homes -- off 33 percent from the previous year's decade-low figure. The Mets fell to 1.54 on SNY, down nearly a third from 2012.

Football? The Giants and Jets both saw their average local ratings slide along with their playoff hopes.

Hockey ratings are difficult to compare because of the lockout last season, but the Islanders and Rangers are up over 2011-12, and the Devils way down.

Brooklyn Nets games on YES are doing much better than in the New Jersey days and are improving with the team's fortunes, but their 0.79 average entering Wednesday night still was down 15 percent from last season's final figure.

All of which brings us back to the team that ranks as the biggest disappointment of all.

Through the Knicks' first 52 games on MSG, they were averaging a 2.29 rating, down 30 percent compared to last season at this point. That still was the third-best figure in the past dozen years, trailing only 2012-13 and '11-12. But the fall illustrates how deflating their season has been for all concerned.

Ratings are not everything in the TV sports business. Regional networks derive the majority of their revenue from monthly subscriber fees paid by distributors, not from advertising, which cushions fluctuations in viewership. But the effects of losing are felt throughout networks built around local teams.

Szczerbiak said he uses his playing experience in the NBA to offer perspective -- he was on a Celtics team that dropped 18 games in a row in 2007 -- but without making excuses for players and coaches.

MSG's game and studio announcers have been plenty critical of the Knicks, but as with all team-owned channels, some accuse them of having limited freedom to speak their minds.

What about that, Wally?

"I have to be honest,'' he said. "I've been able to do my job and it's all come from me the way I do it . . . By no means does MSG tell me, or anyone tell me, what to say up there.''

Dan Ronayne, the network's executive VP, acknowledged "it's no secret you want all of your teams to win all the time. But that never happens.''

Given the sophistication of Knicks fans, he said sugarcoating is not an option.

"What they want from MSG Network is credible, insightful, expert, honest assessment of the game that they are watching,'' Ronayne said. "That's what we strive to do, game in and game out, season in and season out.''

The idea, he said, is to "strike a balance in good times and bad times.''

That includes giving people a reason to watch. As Szczerbiak noted, as bad as the Knicks have been, the sorry state of the Eastern Conference means a modest winning streak could get them back into contention. The Knicks are 51/2 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot with 20 games left.

"There still is a little bit of hope, and that's not just because I work for MSG,'' he said. "That's reality.''

Ronayne said riding the waves of wins and losses is "part of being a professional'' in local TV sports. Still, he added, "Hope springs eternal.''

After an eternal autumn and winter, a sunnier New York sports spring sounds pretty good.

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, Rangers, Madison Square Garden and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.

New York Sports