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Hawks talk of town

For years, hockey was taboo on local sports talk radio, but now fans are getting fill

Ed Sherman

On media

9:46 PM CDT, June 18, 2013

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Dan McNeil previously had been muzzled for much of his two-decade plus sports talk radio career when it came to discussing his passion, hockey. The WSCR-AM 670 late morning host even received an edict once when the team was in a Stanley Cup Final.

Back in 1992, the Blackhawks were playing for the title against the Penguins at the same time as the Bulls were going for a second straight championship against the Trail Blazers.

"Early management (at WSCR) was vehemently against hockey," McNeil said. "They were very direct. I was told (by a station executive), 'I don't want Hawks ratings. I want Bulls ratings.'"

Flash forward to 2013, and the Blackhawks are dominating the discussion on sports talk radio. Hockey has gone from being viewed as a ratings killer to residing front and center on WSCR and WMVP-AM 1000 for months.

The hockey talk is a huge barometer in showing how the Blackhawks' success goes beyond increased TV ratings for games. It is a sign the team has become more mainstream, keeping closer company with the Bears, Bulls, White Sox and Cubs.

"Now the conversation is going on with people who haven't traditionally discussed hockey," said Jim Andrews, senior vice-president for content strategy for Chicago-based IEG. "That's what you want. It's gravy on what you'd expect to get."

WMVP's Marc Silverman believes the Blackhawks bandwagon is much bigger this year than when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, judging from the response on his afternoon show. Timing, though, might be a factor.

"It's the perfect storm for the Hawks," Silverman said. "The Bulls are done, and nobody wants to talk about the Cubs and Sox. We're just trying to build a bridge between the Hawks and the beginning of Bears training camp."

Silverman admits there still is a learning curve when it comes to Blackhawks discussion. The level of sophistication about hockey isn't there compared to the other mainstream sports.

"The Hawks were terrible on faceoffs (in game 3)," Silverman said. "How long is that conversation going to be? Three-four minutes? Meanwhile, if the Bears offensive line isn't doing well, we'll dissect that for 30 minutes."

That dynamic could change in the future. Ratings growth in the coveted youth demographics might be the most significant development in the Hawks run. Hawks ratings on CSN were up 110 percent for men ages 18-34 and 109 percent for men and women combined in that category.

Young fans have the chance to become lifetime fans.

"It's a great sign," Andrews said. "In many sports, the big challenge is attracting younger viewers. You don't see positive numbers with them. They're more into the action sports, video games. So any time you see a positive jump (in young demos), it's a big deal."

Andrews, though, believes it still is too early to determine if those young fans are on board for the long term. He says a better indicator will be if those young numbers continue to grow a year from now.

McNeil says he is thrilled to be talking hockey on a regular basis after all these years. However, unlike the other mainstream sports, he also thinks hockey discussion will wane if the Blackhawks fall off.

"I believe it requires them to be exceptional for the interest level to remain high," McNeil said. "I think the Blackhawks organization knows that. They don't take this for granted."

An explanation: Why did NBC put Games 2 and 3 on NBC Sports Network? The answer is simple. NBC wanted to expose viewers to its cable sports outlet.

While the move upset fans who don't get NBC Sports Network, NBC got the desired result. Game 3 had nearly 4.01 million viewers, the second highest audience ever on NBC Sports Network (U.S./Japan Gold Medal Olympic soccer game had 4.4 million viewers), and an all-time high for hockey.

Game 2 on Saturday was close behind with just fewer than 3.964 million viewers.

The games likely would have done a bigger rating if they aired on NBC; 6.4 million viewers watched Game 1 on NBC. Access remains an issue, as NBC Sports Network is in 80 million homes compared to nearly 100 million for ESPN.

NBC, though, believes the main way to drive up ratings and more importantly, subscribers, is to air premium content on NBC Sports Network. The network felt it was worth sacrificing some overall ratings on NBC.

It won't be an issue the rest of the way. The remaining games are on NBC.

Special contributor Ed Sherman writes at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report