Puck Daddy - NHL

While there are more legitimate reasons for the Winter Classic's ratings decline this season, we'll continue to blame it all on that ill-timed third-period butchering of "Sweet Carolina" "Sweet Caroline" by Lenny Clarke that made Roseanne's National Anthem sound like Pavarotti.

From Sports Business Daily (sub. required), the ratings news on the Fenway Park Classic between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers has puckheads stunned and a little depressed today:

NBC earned a 2.6 overnight Nielsen rating for the Flyers-Bruins Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Friday, down 10.3% from a 2.9 for the Red Wings-Blackhawks matchup last year, and even with the inaugural Penguins-Sabres Winter Classic in '08. The 2.6 overnight still marks the second-best NHL regular-season rating since '96.

So they've got that going for them, which is nice.

The fans' depression comes from the fact that the Fenway Classic had been universally endorsed as a success by viewers and pundits alike, with sports media critic Bruce Dowbiggin of the Globe & Mail calling it "a benchmark for televised sports." The ratings drop takes some of the shine off the NHL's TV jewel, but overreaction to this news has been rampant and misplaced.

Remain calm, all is well; here are a few reasons why the 2010 Winter Classic ratings drop isn't time for panic.

1. The matchup was problematic

As Dowbiggin acknowledged, the Flyers and Bruins battle "was a lot of light, but not much heat." Lack of offense and excitement for the first 57 minutes made this the least impressive of the three Classic games. The fact that neither team has played up to its potential this season provided its own marketing challenges before the game.

As usual for the NHL, local ratings are an engine for national ratings. According to Puck the Media, Boston held up its end of the bargain in overnights:

Boston is certainly not at fault, as the game drew a staggering 14.4/29 in the market.  By comparison, the Red Sox averaged a 9.4 rating in Boston for regular season games, with a 17.9 for the team's home opener, while the Celtics a 4.1 in the regular season, and a 16.1 for their highest-rated post-season game.  One final comparison, the 14.4 is higher than the 14.2 NESN drew for Game 7 of Bruins-Hurricanes.

But in Philadelphia, it was a different story, as Laura Nachman reports (via Sports Media Watch):

Penn State won the big battle on New Year's Day as its victory over LSU in the Capital One Bowl earned a 10 rating/19 share for 6ABC. The Mummers Parade on myPHL17 strutted to second place with a 6 rating/12 share, and the Winter Classic featuring the Flyers was third with a 6 rating/11 share.

If one of the markets doesn't hold up its end of the bargain, ratings drop. Either the Penn State game or the lack of excitement for the Flyers this season dragged the numbers down in Philly. Or, perhaps, outdoor hockey can't compete with the The Mummers Parade.

2. Lesson learned: Know your venues better

Fenway was awesome. A perfect venue for a televised outdoor hockey game, and a stadium that had casual fans taking notice because of the novelty of it.

That said: We predicted that doing Wrigley and Fenway back-to-back was going to be a tricky sell, and the buildup to this game lacked the magic that the NHL had in marketing the first edition and the Wrigley game.

They don't necessarily have to alternate football/baseball/football; but doing two historic baseball venues in a row was probably a misstep. This Fenway game was going to be huge, but needed a little distance from the Wrigley game to really work.

3. Next time, more glamour in the matchup

Already, the expectations are in place that the ultimate response to this ratings news will be for the NHL to unleash the awesome power of their fully armed and operational Ovechkin vs. Crosby rivalry. Heinz Field in Pittsburgh has been mentioned; D.C. has two venues open as well.

The NHL can play that hand, but getting Ovechkin and the Capitals in the game now seems essential for next season. So do the New York Rangers, who are an Original Six franchise with the sizzle of the Red Wings or Blackhawks -- especially if the venue ends up being something like Yankee Stadium.

Ovechkin vs. the Rangers, or vs. Crosby, in 2011, no matter the venue, and this ratings hiccup is ancient history.

4. It's still a cash cow

This is one of those aspects of the Classic that's lost on those too focused on the ratings: That the NHL is printing money with Winter Classic sales, across the board. From the New York Times:

The third Classic, between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday afternoon, is expected to generate $8 million in ticket sales at Fenway Park and $3 million in ad revenue for NBC, triple the total of two years ago.

Thanks largely to the midseason game, the league says that its sponsorship sales are growing at a 66 percent annual pace and that its merchandise revenue, led by the throwback jerseys inspired by the first Classic, is soaring.

Start worrying when those numbers decline by 10.3 percent year-to-year.

5. Finally, sometime reviews are more important than box office

It happens at the movies and on television all the time: Artistic merit doesn't always translate high viewership. That's why they invented the label "critically acclaimed" -- it's for when they can't call it "the No. 1 comedy in America!"

The reviews were stellar. The fan reaction, locally and on television, was largely positive; as Lepore pointed out, the only real knock on NBC was its lack of strong promotion for the NHL in 2010 during its broadcast.

Some believe that the game is losing its buzz; the fact that speculation about the 2011 Classic became the hockey topic of the weekend tells you that's nonsense. So did the Internet buzz leading up to the game, which rivaled the Wrigley Classic.

Here's the canned comment from the NHL regarding the 2010 Classic's performance, via COO John Collins:

"Across an array of business metrics, this year's Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic was the best yet, connecting with more fans than ever and becoming firmly established as a valuable national sports property.   The Bruins' overtime win in an unforgettable setting at Fenway Park reminded us why in three short years, the Winter Classic has become one of the most special events on the national sports calendar and the newest New Year's Day sports tradition.  In the face of high expectations, we far outdistanced the previous records for merchandise sales and NHL.com traffic.  The event also left a lasting impact on Boston, with generations of families celebrating their love for the game and youth teams and community groups engaging in big numbers in a meaningful way.

"This year's game once again demonstrated that the NHL Winter Classic has transformed the way sports fans think about the NHL experience.  By providing fans a national event to rally around, we can deliver an impressive national television audience for a regular season game.  When the final numbers are in, NBC's broadcast will most likely be one of the most watched regular season games in the U.S. in the past 35 years.  That is impressive considering the stiff competition we faced. Our fans, players, teams and partners all tell us they absolutely love the Winter Classic and for all those fortunate enough to experience the event, it was a special day that produced lasting memories."

The NHL told us they aren't issuing a formal press release on the 2010 Winter Classic's performance until later this week, when the full official ratings come in. In both previous events, the numbers dropped from the initial overnights:

2008 (PIT vs. BUF): 2.6 overnight rating, 2.2 final rating, 3.7 million viewers

2009 (DET vs. CHI): 2.9 overnight rating, 2.5/5 final rating, 4.4 million viewers

The minute the NHL didn't blast the media with ratings news, you knew it wasn't a home run (at Fenway ... yuck yuck). The spin will be interesting, as we're sure NHL numbers crunchers are working angles like online viewership and DVR usage in determining another "total audience" figure to help ease the underwhelming ratings news.

(Yes, DVR numbers: With the game on a holiday and a Friday, there's a chance it may have been recorded by a fair number of fans. As the NY Times reported in Nov. 2009, some programs are seeing a 7 to 12-percent swing in viewership when DVR numbers are factored in.)

Again: Underwhelming news. Not bad. Not poor. Not a reason to panic. The Winter Classic isn't going anywhere except back to the drawing board.

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