The Winter Classic ratings for the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins hit over the weekend, and the news wasn’t great for the National Hockey League and NBC.
The 2016 Classic at Gillette Stadium drew a 1.6 rating and 2.775 million viewers on Nielsen fast-nationals. According to Sports Media Watch, this was down 16 percent in ratings and 20 percent in viewership from last season’s Classic featuring the Chicago Blackhawks at the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park. That was down 36 percent in ratings and 37 percent in viewers from the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium.
There are four factors behind this ratings tumble:
As we hear every playoff season, NBC gets no ratings benefit from Canada. And while that wasn’t an issue when Boston was playing for the Stanley Cup against the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, it is an issue for the Winter Classic. (Especially when 60,000 potential local viewers are inside a football stadium.)
That said, there was a Canadian team in the Winter Classic in 2014, and it was a ratings hit, tying the NHL’s highest regular season rating since 1975. That’s because fans wanted to see a record crowd in an iconic venue (University of Michigan Stadium) and in brutal conditions.
No one sampling the 2016 Classic on television saw snow flurries or paralyzing cold temps. Thanks, El Nino ...
Venue matters, and the fact that the last two Winter Classics were held in relatively new facilities with little appeal to the average fan played into their inability to hook viewers.
While NBC said having two high-profile college football games on at the same time as the Classic would be beneficial – more fans tuned in, willing to sample the game during breaks in the action – it just wasn’t the case. The Ohio State/Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl on ESPN and Michigan/Florida in the Citrus Bowl on ABC were both highly rated, with the Irish vs. Buckeyes game pulling in 17 percent higher ratings than last year.
4. The Game Itself
The Canadiens blew out the Bruins, 5-1, and totally dominated the first period of the game. It might have been the best Winter Classic game from a performance perspective – the ice was better than in most arenas, and it looked like a regular-season game rather than players battling the elements. But that’s not always what makes for an intriguing outdoor game. We want to see them struggle with snow or wind or freezng cold.
Plus the fact that the Canadiens' dominance and the Bruins’ player absences sucked the drama out of it.
There are other factors, to be sure. There are the number of fans who stream the game and don’t watch NBC. There’s the notion that “rivalry” in the NHL is in itself a selling point, without anything resembling the bloody days of yore happening on the ice in 2016. (The NHL is, at this point, like WWE: Relying on the highlights and relics of a bygone era in an attempt to draw heat today.)
But the final thing to remember here is that the ratings for this event have increasingly become less of an issue for the NHL.
It’s about what happens on-site, and on-site the League and its teams are making money hand-over-fist on gate and on merchandise.
So while the League never likes to have its ratings struggles become a headline for an event like this, it’s like with the All-Star Game: The viewership nationally isn’t as vital as the success for the event locally.
(Keep that in mind for next year when the ratings aren’t stellar for the Toronto Maple Leafs Winter Classic.)
But if you want to talk ratings impact, know this: The 2016 Winter Classic is still the eighth most-watched NHL regular-season game on record. It’s still 116 percent higher than the average non-Winter Classic game on NBC since 2008 (1.282 million viewers). And overall, the Winter Classic has averaged 3.839 million fans, which is up close to 200 percent higher than the NBC regular-season average (1.282 million) from 2008-2015.
So no, the 2016 Winter Classic wasn’t a ratings success in Winter Classic terms. But it was in NHL on NBC terms.
Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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