By Alan Pergament
A close friend of mine who is a huge hockey fan attended the Buffalo Sabres 4-1 loss to Columbus last week and afterwards declared it "unwatchable."
TV viewers are increasingly coming to the same conclusion.
The return of ex Sabre Jason Pominville to First Niagara Center in Monday's 2-1 loss to Minnesota stopped the trend of declining ratings.
The game had a 6.0 rating on a busy sports night on cable that saw San Diego defeat Indianapolis on Monday Night Football (8.2) and Los Angeles defeat St. Louis (2.3) in the National League baseball championsip series.
Before Pominville's return, TV viewership had slipped more than 50 percent from the 9.8 rating for the season opener against Detroit to a 4.8 for the Sabres game with the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The game against Tampa had a 7.7 rating, the Columbus game had a 6.1 rating and Saturday night's game against Pat Kane and the Blackhawks dropped to a 4.8, which is less than half of 9.8.
As bad as the fall has been, some perspective is in order. Because of last year's NHL lockout, there are no comparative figures from last October. After the lockout ended in January, 13 of the Sabres' first 23 TV games had ratings of 10 or higher.
The Sabres ratings are down sharply from the start of this season but they are still higher than many prime time broadcast networks get these days. But the loss of more than 30-50 percent from the season opener is a clear indication that the NHL team is losing its fan base.
After all, the NHL is supposed to be entertaining and a team that only scores one goal a game doesn't fit that description.
I suppose I should apologize now to NBC Sports Network analyst Keith Jones for saying after the season-opening loss to the Red Wings that "Buffalo is going to struggle to win games this year."
At the time, I wrote that I might have waited for a larger sample before making that statement. Well, now we've seen a larger sample.
Fans aren't happy. Sponsors can't be happy. Indeed, the only people who seem to be happy about the Sabres' woes are the snarks on Twitter, who usually provide more entertainment than the games.
The favorite Twitter question now is how long Sabres Owner Terry Pegula will stick with General Manager Darcy Regier. It won't be long before fans will be calling for the head of Coach Ron Rolston.
I am writing this as a TV critic looking for entertainment rather than a sportswriter, which I used to be.
As a TV critic, my view is if the team is going to be as bad as the 1962 Mets as some have suggested, the Sabres could at least bring in an entertaining coach to provide some amusement.
Rolston may be a good X's and O's coach, but he has a lifeless personality that matches his team's efforts. He is the wrong coach for this team and this town.
The Sabres may have tuned out former Coach Lindy Ruff before he was fired, but at least Ruff was an entertaining TV show. He was lively in post-game interviews and fiery on the bench.
The fans need another fiery type or someone to inspire the team and give TV fans a reason to watch.
My hockey friend suggests the Sabres ought to reach out to former Sabre Michael Peca, who has had coaching success at a lower level and was very popular here during the playing days.
At the very least, the hiring of Peca would be a good public relations move at a time the Sabres really need one as badly as they need to score goals.
On other local ratings fronts, the Buffalo Bills' 27-24 loss to Cincinnati Sunday was the highest-rated program of the week as usual. The game averaged a 32.1 rating and hit a high of 40.0 in the last 30 minutes.
The ratings for the American League baseball championsip series on WUTV, the local Fox affiliate, call into question how big a baseball market the area really is now. Detroit's 1-0 win over Boston on Saturday had a 3.0 rating opposite the Sabres game and Boston's comeback win over Detroit Sunday had a 4.9 rating.
If WNYers had a vote on which new network series should be canceled, it probably would be ABC's new 10 p.m. Sunday night drama "Betrayal." It had a 2.1 rating this past Sunday, losing more than half of the audience of its lead-in "Revenge."
NBC's new Thursday lineup is taking a big hit locally. The live airings of "Parks & Recreation" (2.3), "Welcome to the Family" (2.8), "Sean Saves the World" (3.8), "The Michael J. Fox Show" (4.5) and "Parenthood" (4.3) all are doing about as well as the Sabres. However, "Parenthood" gets a huge boost from DVR and On Demand viewership and the series starring Sean Hayes and Fox are being repeated on Friday night.
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