I've been fairly convinced that MSG's ratings totals haven't been accurate for some time now, dating back to the Ottawa re-match game in February. It didn't make any sense to me that almost twice as many Buffalonians wanted to watch a random game on Versus than the most hyped contest of the season. My theory picked up steam as the late-season numbers came in, was strengthened by the low ratings for the Islanders series, and essentially proved by the rating for game 2 (11.0 combined) of the Rangers series.
Alan Pergament of The Buffalo News has said the following in the past few weeks:
"The Versus rating appears to confirm what local researchers have suggested — that the Sabres ratings on MSG have been badly underreported."
"One local researcher also believes MSG’s ratings have been artificially low all season."
"The discrepancy should further bolster the argument that the audience for Sabres on MSG this season has been severely underreported."
Now I doubt I'm the local researcher in question as this is merely a hobby for me, so there is a pretty strong chance that someone else (with real sources) is coming to the same conclusion. Here's some analysis:
The Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo comparison. This is a good starting point because both of the match-ups between the clubs were on Versus as was the NHL All-Star Game.
Both cities reportedly averaged a 5.2 rating (Buffalo's rating increases to a 7.0 after factoring in nationally televised games). I have no reason to believe that Buffalo fans are more apt to tune into nationally televised games than Pittsburgh fans. Since both clubs supposedly had equal ratings for their local games (on MSG and FSN Pittsburgh respectively), one would assume that the March 13th and April 3rd meetings on Versus would have very similar local ratings. They didn't.
3/13 (PIT): 6.0 (up 15% from FSN average)
3/13 (BUF): 12.0 (up 130% from MSG average)
4/3 (PIT): 6.1 (up 17% from FSN average)
4/3 (BUF): 12.2 (up 135% from MSG average)
All-Star Game (PIT): 2.8
All-Star Game (BUF): 9.8 (7.1 VS + 2.7 CBC)
It makes sense to have a slight increase for nationally televised games. Pittsburgh/Buffalo is an exciting match-up between two of the Eastern Conference's top teams. It doesn't makes sense to see a rating more than twice of what MSG regularly gets. An argument could be made that the Sabres had such a high rating for the All-Star game because they had a league high 3 starters, but VS loves Sidney Crosby and talks about him at every chance (it's not nicknamed Versids for nothing) so I doubt it had much of an impact.
It becomes most obvious when evaluating the payoff ratings.
A meaningless regular season game gets a 16.4 rating, but the first round averages slightly over than 10?
Game 1 (VS) of the 2nd round gets a 25.3 and Game 3 (NBC) gets a 29.8, but Game 2 (MSG) gets an 11.0? There's only one explanation. MSG's ratings figures are significantly flawed.