Winter Classic 2010: Greater success or slight decline for NHL?

The 2010 Sponsored By A Tire Company Winter Classic is this Friday at Fenway Park, as was announced all over NBC's "Sunday Night Football" broadcast last night. The network kicked it over to Boston at least twice, where former XFL lead announcer Matt Vasgersian and the venerable Mike Milbury chatted up the Fenway Park hockey game. The segments captured everything compelling and challenging about the selling of this season's outdoor event.

The images were striking: The baseball diamond at Fenway covered with a rink, in the shadow of the Green Monster and surrounded by the ancient stadium. Hockey seemed a more natural fit on Yawkey Way than in Wrigleyville. It's going to be a picturesque venue.

But the selling of the game itself was underwhelming, and has been leading up to the game. Perhaps the Chicago Blackhawks/Detroit Red Wings Classic buildup set the bar too high, because this year's "frozen pond" motif in the commercials is beyond benign; it looks like a scene from a SyFy original film about a hockey team in Narnia.

Milbury didn't help things last night, either. He had three minutes to pimp the game at the top of the football broadcast to a massive audience; he managed to ooze Red sox affection and name-check Carl Yastrzemski without mentioning anything about the teams actually playing in the Winter Classic beyond something like "they need the points."

Huzzah! Sound the trumpets! They need the points! Be still, our beating hearts ...

He also spoke about the history of the Broad Street Bullies and the Big Bad Bruins, which is great and all but dances around the obvious selling point for this game: That it could be the most violent outdoor contest in Winter Classic history. But the NHL has been refusing to make this sale for the better part of 20 years, so no surprise there.

Where are you on the 2010 Winter Classic? Feeling the buzz? Worried about the NHL's momentum? Coming up, some points of concern and a look at the trends and troubles that will affect the ratings on NBC for Jan. 1.

1. The Venue

When Fenway was formally announced in July, we broke down five reasons to celebrate and five reasons for concern about the venue. From the concerns:

Back-to-Back Home Runs. While the stadia offer their own charms, there's something a little repetitive about doing classic baseball parks in back-to-back seasons. NBC expertly sold the Wrigley Field event by borrowing the iconography of baseball. Will the 2010 promotions simply insert images of the Green Monster for green ivy?

There's no question that the novelty of playing in a football stadium and then a baseball stadium for the first time isn't found in the 2010 edition of the Classic. But Fenway is holding its own as far as buzz goes.

Here are the Google search trends for Wrigley in 2008. The numbers on the side are the baseline for all searches on the topic in the calendar year (more about Google trends here).

Here are the trends for Fenway in 2009:

Now, the Fenway numbers should spike this week to where the Wrigley ones ended, and the trend lines might even have Fenway a shade ahead of Wrigley's pace. So the baseball/baseball "doubleheader" hasn't decreased the interest in Fenway as a venue, it would seem.

2. The TV Ratings

Boston and Philadelphia are traditionally strong markets for local ratings, both averaging over a 2.0 locally as of Jan. 2009 last season. That's vital for the Winter Classic's ratings success; consider that the 2009 Classic at Wrigley pulled an 11.8 in Chicago and a 10.5 in Detroit, helping the game to a 12-percent increase over the Pittsburgh Penguins/Buffalo Sabres Classic in 2008 and the highest overnight ratings for an NHL regular-season game in well over a decade. Flyers fans will watch even if their team stinks (and it does), while Boston fans will watch because hockey at Fenway is like the Pope visiting The Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

Now, what about the competition for "casual" sports fan viewership?

ABC has the Capitals One Bowl between LSU and Penn State; how that affects Keystone State viewership is anyone's guess, because there will be major flippage. The Gator Bowl is on CBS, between Florida State and West Virginia. ESPN has the Outback Bowl between Northwestern and Auburn; ESPNU has the delicious Chick-Fil-A Bowl between Virginia Tech and Tennessee.

It's much the same group of college football games as last season, where the following played out:

7.2: Capital One Bowl on ABC, Georgia/Michigan St. (1 PM Thursday)

6.9: Rose Bowl Pregame on ABC (4:30 PM Thursday)

6.1/10: Orange Bowl on FOX, Cincinnati/Virginia Tech (8:30 PM Thursday)

4.3/8: Gator Bowl on CBS, Nebraska/Clemson (1 PM Thursday)

2.9/6: NHL on NBC, Red Wings/Blackhawks (1 PM Thursday)

Sports Media Watch notes that the Capital One Bowl drew a 9.9 in 2008 and a 7.2 in 2009; LSU and Penn State are a huge draw and will probably be closer to the former number than the latter.

Still, the NHL has a solid foundation of local viewers here with a legit chance to bring in casual fans for the draw of Fenway and two iconic Eastern Conference teams. Plus ...

3. The Weather

The average high temperature in Boston during January is 36 degrees Fahrenheit and the low is 22, and the city had snow on Jan. 1, 2009. As was pointed out on NBC last night, there's a wintery mix scheduled for New Year's Day around the East Coast that could make Fenway the Winter Wonderland Buffalo was; and, more importantly, one that could keep more fans inside watching the boob tube than usual.

However, if it's less a wintery mix than straight rain, that's trouble. The Fenway rink can withstand some precipitation but not a steady rain that prevents refreezing. The high forecasted for Jan. 1 is 37 degrees.

Hooooowevvvvver, if the game is postponed, it's postponed to Jan. 2, which is a Saturday afternoon. NBC has local programming, Off-Road Racing and poker scheduled for what would be the Classic's time slot. And there's actually less bowl competition on Saturday than Friday.

4. The Buzz

The trends for "Winter Classic" searches via Google Trends of the last three editions in December. Again, these are measurements against searches for "Winter Classic" throughout that year.

If anything, the Fenway Classic is trending right around Wrigley, and both are off the pace of Ralph Wilson Stadium. The intensity of searches should be spiking right around now for the 2010 Classic. So the buzz appears to be where it needs to be for the game.

5. The Drawing Cards

While local viewership will come out for the Bruins and Flyers, will casual fans?

The Bruins are fifth in the East; the Flyers are 11th. It's a far cry from the reigning Stanley Cup champions vs. their resurgent Original Six rivals at Wrigley.

Neither team has a star you'd call marketable to a casual audience. Puckheads know Chris Pronger(notes), Mike Richards(notes), Milan Lucic(notes), Zdeno Chara(notes) and Tim Thomas(notes); casual sports fans probably think we've just named five U.N. ambassadors. Where would the buzz for this game be if Alex Ovechkin(notes) and the first-place Washington Capitals had gotten the nod over the Flyers? Because Ovechkin was mentioned more on "Sunday Night Football" than any current Flyer or Bruin.

(As aside on Chara: How the NHL and NBC haven't played up the 6-foot-9 defenseman and the Green Monster aspect of this game is beyond us. Especially after Chara was, ahem, exposed to a new audience in ESPN: The Magazine.)

6. Prediction

The numbers from the previous two editions:

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 2010 Winter Classic will see a bump in the ratings again, provided the game is played on New Year's Day. It won't be 12 percent, for sure, but modest gains in rating and viewership (still under 5 million) is reasonable.

If the total audience goes over 5 million, the NHL deserves a standing ovation for growing this game and going with Fenway.

Steve Lepore from Puck The Media makes this call:

Nationally, is the interest for the Winter Classic going to improve? Possibly. ESPN is covering the event, VERSUS is doing a better job to keep it in people's minds, and Mike Milbury appeared on Sunday Night Football last night. Advertising on NBC has sold out, and merchandise is flying off the shelves. So, we go back and forth on this, but our opinion is that Winter Classic ratings will just barely push up. We're calling 3.0 overnight rating, 2.6 final rating, and 4.6 million viewers. That's our fairly conservative call. Looking forward to following the numbers.

So the Classic will grow. It's a brand-name event now, with another venue that has people excited even if the matchup doesn't necessarily. The real test for the brand will be the next edition: Will the venue be compelling? Will either Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby(notes) (or both) be involved?

But if the ratings drop slightly, the NHL can spin it as a matchup problem or a self-created marketing challenge of doing baseball in consecutive years. They'd wear a little egg, but the numbers will be strong enough to continue to establish the Winter Classic as a television event.

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