NEW YORK – The NHL’s Winter Classic exists for many reasons.
Like, for example, the thrill of seeing hockey played in the elements, in outdoor stadiums that fascinate fans. Like providing counterprogramming for NBC against college football on New Year’s Day afternoon.
The problems with the 2016 edition of the game – in which the Montreal Canadiens routed the host Boston Bruins, 5-1, inside Gillette Stadium – were that the venue and weather didn’t cooperate, and the college football competition was strategically bad for the NHL.
“You had a couple of factors you can’t control,” said Jon Miller, President, Programming, NBC Sports and NBCSN, in an interview on Monday.
“We had very tough competition. We knew we were going to go up against bowl games. But no one thought we’d have to go up against Ohio State and Notre Dame, and Florida and Michigan. They come from three or four of the best hockey markets in the United States, and Notre Dame being a national brand,”
Miller said the aesthetics weren’t all that eye-catching either. “You didn’t have the snow globe atmosphere, either, like you had in Detroit or Buffalo,” he said.
There was also the fact that the game wasn’t exactly competitive, as the Canadiens handled the shorthanded Bruins rather easily.
All of this combined to give NBC its lowest-rated Winter Classic since the games began in 2008: a 1.6 rating and 2.775 million viewers, via Nielsen. It was down from 3.47 million viewers in 2015 and 4.4 million in 2014, and the second straight season the Winter Classic dipped under a 2.0 rating.
“I look at the glass half full. We still did a big number. It’s the eighth most-watched regular-season NHL game ever. It will beat every NHL regular season game on NBC this year,” said Miller. “This venue, while it’s a great football stadium, doesn’t have the history that Fenway had or Wrigley had. But you take what you have and you make the best of it.
“Putting it in iconic venues is always fun. I will say the sightlines aren’t as good, but people are willing to put up with that.”
But the real issue here is that for the second time in two season, the NHL placed a Canadian team in the Winter Classic. That was OK in 2014, as the iconic nature of Michigan Stadium, the chance for a record crowd and the weather drew viewers. This time, however, the winning market’s ratings not factoring into the final numbers definitely hurt NBC’s final tally.
“When it’s two U.S. cities, that makes up for 20-25 percent of your rating. If you lose one of those markets, you lose 12-15 percent of your ratings. That’s not insignificant,” said Miller.
Boston did about a “13 or 14 rating” for the Classic, he said. “Now imagine if you’re in another big American hockey market, you’d have those numbers to contribute.”
This is a significant point for NBC. The 2017 Winter Classic is widely expected to be held in Toronto at BMO Field, between the Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers. The alternative? The Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Philadelphia Flyers in either of those cities.
“We do talk to them about the matchups. They came to us and said they want to do Montreal vs. Boston, and we supported it. It’s a great rivalry,” said Miller. “That being said, when you have a game in a Canadian market, it means you don’t have two U.S. markets, and that’s going to affect your number.”
Whatever happens for next season, know this: NBC is still quite happy with its Winter Classic numbers, especially within the context of how the rest of its NHL regular-season schedule performs. 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 for Miller, it’s still a meaningful way for the NHL to grab attention for the second half of its season.
“There’s no other league I know of that gets to re-launch its season at the midway point, with a regular-season game, in this way,” he said, pointing to other Leagues that use an All-Star Game as their “launch” point. “It’s a chance to celebrate the game, with a meaningful game, instead of an exhibition.”
So what has him excited for the NHL’s return to NBC in 2016?
The Washington Capitals, for one, and the fact that the best team in the East also has one of hockey’s most marketable stars in Alex Ovechkin. The fact that the Stadium Series will visit “hockey hotbeds” in Colorado and Minnesota. And that the NHL All-Star Game could be a ton of fun with its new 3-on-3 format, which was “a brilliant idea that [NBC producer] Sam Flood and his group have worked on.”
Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org 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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