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Sports media: Despite struggles, Blackhawks remain a national draw

The Blackhawks finished in last place in the Central Division last season, 16 points behind the sixth-place Stars. They’re back in last place this season, and a last-place finish in the league isn’t out of the question.

But that isn’t what NBC schedule-makers care about when it comes to the Hawks. They care about the spike in viewership when the Hawks are on their air.

According to NBC, of the nine most-watched games on NBC Sports Network entering this week, the Stanley Cup champion Capitals were in the top four spots, and the Hawks were in four of the next five: against the Penguins on Dec. 12 and Jan. 6, the Blues on Nov. 14 and the Predators on Jan. 9.

So it’s no surprise that NBC will open its “NHL Game of the Week” schedule with Capitals-Hawks at 11:30 a.m. Sunday. The Hawks return to NBC on Feb. 2 against the Wild. The games are among a league-high 19 national appearances for the Hawks on NBC or NBCSN (eight are nonexclusive, allowing NBC Sports Chicago to carry the game, as well).

Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk will be on the call for the Capitals-Blackhawks game Sunday at NBC. NBC Sports Group

Blackhawks fans remain loyal viewers no matter where they live in the United States,” said Sam Flood, NBC and NBCSN executive producer and president of production. “The history of the club, in addition to the team’s three recent Stanley Cups, the star power of the current players and their incredibly passionate fans regularly make Blackhawks games some of the most-watched NHL broadcasts on our air each season.”

The Hawks have stayed in the top 10 in annual viewership. The Chicago market and widespread fan base help. Road broadcasts always find plenty of Hawks fans in the crowd. Games in Arizona and Florida sound like home games.

But the biggest draws are stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Fortunately for NBC, the Hawks’ team struggles haven’t befallen them. Kane is an All-Star again, and Toews is scoring like he hasn’t in years.

The game against the Capitals adds Alex Ovechkin to the mix, allowing NBC to stake its claim to a big day of sports TV. The network figures to earn a good number before giving way to the AFC and NFC title games.

The game will mark the Hawks’ sixth appearance on NBC or NBCSN in nine games (two were nonexclusive). Hockey fans on social media often have bemoaned the team’s overexposure, such as the Hawks playing in an outdoor game in five of the last six seasons, including three Winter Classics. Eddie Olczyk, the Hawks’ TV analyst and NBC’s top commentator, said he has heard murmurs of Hawks fatigue.

“There’s always chatter,” said Olczyk, who will call Caps-Hawks with Hall of Fame play-by-play voice Mike “Doc” Emrick. “Pittsburgh’s another team that falls under that umbrella. But [what] I keep going back to is teams with star power that have had incredible success, for the most part, it’s going to be an entertaining brand of hockey.

“Both those teams, in particular, are able to sell the game not only in their markets but in other markets. I think there’s always that question where people ask why [are they always on]. My response to that is, that’s the price of success, to be a part of those signature games.”

It’s a long shot for the Hawks to appear in the Winter Classic next season against the host Stars in the Cotton Bowl. But name a better opponent than a division rival going back to the days of the North Stars in the Norris Division, and one that helped increase ratings by 17 percent this year over last (Sabres-Rangers at Citi Field).

NBC has to draw the line somewhere. But you can bet, even if the Hawks finish in last place again, they’ll be given plenty of showcase games next season.

Local Hawks, Bulls ratings dip

Hawks ratings locally on NBCSCH are slightly down from last season. According to the network, the Hawks are averaging a 2.1 after finishing with a 2.4 average last season. Their highest rating this season was 3.8, for the home opener Oct. 7 against the Maple Leafs.

The Bulls are slightly down, as well, but they had a lower starting point. After finishing last season with a 1.8 average, the Bulls are averaging 1.4. However, their live streaming viewership is up 21 percent.

Cubs Convention coverage

Fans without tickets to the Cubs Convention this weekend still can follow the festivities. NBCSCH will broadcast from the Sheraton Grand Chicago on Friday, airing a Cubs-centric “SportsTalk Live” at 5 p.m., followed by the opening ceremonies at 6.

The Cubs’ radio flagship, The Score, will broadcast from the convention all weekend, starting with Dan McNeil and Danny Parkins at 1 p.m. Friday and continuing with Laurence Holmes from 6 to 9. Shows also will air from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to noon Sunday.