Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Regardless of Ratings, Winter Classic Works

Ratings for the Winter Classic dipped a bit this year, but the annual outdoor game remains a winner for the NHL because it looks good on TV and because it gives the sport at least a little mainstream bump in attention.

With a 2.4 overnight rating, this year's Rangers-Flyers matchup was the lowest in the five-year history of the game. But it's not like the game has ever been a ratings blockbuster.

The inaugural game, Penguins-Sabres in 2008, drew a 2.6 while the high-water mark came in 2009 when the Red Wings-Blackhawks matchup drew a 2.9. Apologists will point to this year's Jan. 2 date and a later start (3 p.m as opposed to the initially scheduled 1 p.m. because of warm weather year) as reasons for the ratings decline. But there's no need to apologize.

There's no way the NHL would've contested the game on New Year's Day (as it had in the past) against a full slate of NFL games. That would've been a certain ratings disaster. And the competition this year on Jan. 2 was not easy, with a variety of college football bowl games, including the venerable Rose Bowl that kicked off before the hockey game ended.

Plus, the game drew a hefty 11.9 overnight rating in Philadelphia and a respectable 4.3, which is huge for hockey, in New York City. In addition, there are so many ways to measure TV success or failure. In terms of viewership, the game was up -- with 3.74 million people watching -- a 2% increase over last year and the fifth most-watched regular season NHL game since 1975.

To its credit, the NHL knows it's a mid-season special event for hockey in general and a TV program at heart. (In fact, the top three most-watched regular season games are all versions of the Winter Classic.)

In terms of the special event, alumni games, college hockey games, public skating sessions and other special events surround the game itself. In terms of TV, that's why the league insists on using fake snow to make the area around the ice look white, even if there has been no snow -- which was the case in Philadelphia this year and Pittsburgh last year.

Still, it's a good event. Several great camera angles provide a sense of the scale of an outdoor game. Plus, the game (as with all NHL games on NBC) offers one of the best play-by-play men in any sport -- Mike Emrick -- and the Winter Classic is better than the All-Star Game in terms of overall mainstream attention for the league.

Because hockey will never be the NFL, NBA or college football, it's somewhat unfair to compare the game's numbers to those other sports. Through five years the Winter Classic seems to be doing what it should for the NHL, and it's hard to imagine what broadcast partner NBC could provide in that window that would draw more viewers against the competition the game annually faces.

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