Did The Winter Classic Save The NHL on Network TV?

We often talk about the National Hockey League as if it is a potential boon product on national television. Growing ratings in the regular season and playoffs. Lots of great numbers during the playoffs. Best ratings for Stanley Cup Final games in years. Then there’s the behemoth of Olympic ratings, but those don’t really matter in terms of the NHL. The fact is, the hockey world almost always projects (and Puck the Media is often to blame for this) hockey as growing solidly on TV.

For the playoffs, that is absolutely true. But during the regular season? We’ve seen some improvement on VERSUS, but the network TV numbers on NBC remain – even with the Winter Classic – at their lowest levels since the league returned to broadcast television with FOX in 1994. The NHL hasn’t seen it’s regular season ratings on the major networks go up since 2002. That’s a long time to trend downward for a product that just cut a check for $2 billion from a major corporation for broadcast rights.

This just goes to show you the value of the Winter Classic. Not only does the game typically double and come close to tripling the numbers that the rest of NBC’s regular season broadcasts, it attracts advertisers galore. It moves a ton of merchandise, and provides the NHL and NBC with a valuable promotional vehicle for the rest of their seasons. Even if buzz is down everywhere else, the NHL and NBC can often point to the Winter Classic as the one place where they get mainstream sports fans to check out the game before April.

It makes this writer wonder where the NHL network would be on TV if the Winter Classic hadn’t been invented, or if it had gone bust in it’s first year. Would the NHL still claim growing playoff ratings? Probably. The Detroit/Pittsburgh finals, as well as the one we had last year were bound to grow from the abysmal triad of “Sun Belt v. Canada” match-ups. More importantly, just how much worse would the regular season numbers on NBC be? Where would VERSUS be without it being used to promote games on that network?

The answer is probably a little more grim than a lot of hockey diehards want to admit. While it is a package of things that have spurred the NHL to this deal, let’s face it: NBC’s portion of this deal is likely almost entirely a buy-in on the Winter Classic and Stanley Cup Final games. Without it, the NHL likely gets a smaller deal from VERSUS/NBC, with NBC likely paying very little of it. Would NBC still even want to be involved? Would the NHL have accepted their fate as a cable-only sport and gone back to ESPN, or take a cable-only deal with Turner or Fox? It’s certainly possible, even likely, to think the NHL might look to be headed off broadcast television for good.

I guess a lot of this is very much hypothetical. The Winter Classic did come it, did become a pretty solid hit among hockey standards, did move millions in merch, did draw millions in viewers. I guess your opinion depends on how much you value the platform broadcast television still provides. Does the NHL still need to be on NBC? Does NBC still need the NHL? Without the Winter Classic, maybe, and maybe not. The Winter Classic ensures that the NHL has – aside from the Stanley Cup Final – a product it wants showcased to the biggest audience possible, and NBC has a “prestige” event they can air on New Year’s Day. It serves both purposes, and is likely the reason we see the full extent of the TV deal hammered out last week.

But it’s still very interesting, and maybe a little frightening, to think about what could’ve happened had none of this been started in the first place.

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16 Responses to Did The Winter Classic Save The NHL on Network TV?

  1. 5w30 says:

    The Winter Classic’s success could certainly be connected to the NCAA decision to move the most significant college football bowl games off of New Year’s Day. One used to set the dial at noon onto your NBC station and watch the bowls go by, with a change to CBS for the Cotton Bowl or later in the day to ABC for the Sugar. Having the NHL take the early afternoon time slot for the Winter Classic is a winning strategy by the league and NBC, reminding viewers that yes, hockey is a fast-paced sport usually played in the winter, outdoors.

    • Sean says:

      An excellent point. Before the BCS ruined New Year’s Day, it would be unthinkable for anything but college football to be on. They opened up a prime viewing day (what else do people do on New Year’s Day but watch TV?) and the NHL took great advantage.

  2. Stephen says:

    The Winter Classic did save the NHL on TV. But of course going back to the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals between Pittsburgh and Detroit, that game 5 that went to triple OT, with the Pens winning that, even though they lost the finals, that what also got the turning point to get the ratings and the popularly of hockey back on top.

  3. David says:

    Why is it that hockey cannot catch on nationally? For those of us who love the sport it is hard to understand. Can someone explain what the problem is and if there is anything realistic that can be done to change it? I hear so many complaints about the NBA yet their rating seem to be moving up quick.

    • Morgan Wick says:

      Part of it’s the old “can’t see the puck” canard (not everyone has HD still), part of it is competing head-to-head with the NBA all season, part of it is that hockey is, like most sports, a participation-driven spectator sport (for a number of reasons, football is almost perfect for television and so can survive lower-than-expected participation numbers, though fantasy has a lot to do with the NFL’s popularity, and auto racing’s television-friendliness is underrated, as TV makes it look a lot less like a bunch of cars going around in circles) and if you live outside the Northern US, Canada, or Colorado, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a good place for your kids to play hockey (whereas it’s easy to set up a football field, baseball diamond, basketball court, or even soccer pitch anywhere). Part of it may also be that hockey moves too fast for America’s famously-short attention spans.

    • Morgan Wick says:

      Also, it’s never a good sign when a significant chunk of your sport’s appeal is orthogonal to the sport itself. Slam dunks in basketball and Beckham-style “artistry” in soccer is one thing, but when a major draw for your existing fanbase is something (fighting) whose only in-game effect is a penalty for both participants, that sends a message that your actual product isn’t worth investing in. I have never understood why hockey-heads love fighting so much, ever since I found out that I could get a delayed three-minute no-goal-shortening power play just by not hitting anything when one of my players found himself in a fight and just let himself get beat down in NHL 2001 (my guy would only get a two-minute roughing minor).

  4. marv935 says:

    One of the problems with hockey getting big TV ratings in the regular season is that there are too many teams that can make the playoffs, the 82 game schedule is very long and, because the top seeds in hockey generally don’t fare well in the playoffs, there is nothing compelling to make the casual fan interested in the regular season.. The Stanley Cup playoffs are very exciting but the regular season is not. I would recommend in the future for less teams to make the playoffs or for the NHL to go to a shorter schedule and a playoff system in which the three division leaders would get a bye to the conference quarter-finals. That way, more games in the season would become more compelling for the viewer to watch.

    • Morgan Wick says:

      The NBA makes it work, sort of, although only the Christmas Day games (their equivalent to the Winter Classic) and some big “event” matchups (like LeBron’s return to Cleveland) get ratings much above 2.0. On the other hand, they have more “name” teams.

  5. E says:

    I agree that the NHL would not be on regular network television WITHOUT the Winter classic.

    Also, what is going to happen next season when New Years Day is on Sunday.
    Is NBC going to move the winter classic to Monday, Jan 2?
    I can’t imagine they will put the game up against the NFL?

  6. David says:

    Thanks for the reply Marv. I just wonder why the NBA doesn’t have the same problems given that the same number of teams make the playoffs and there is less parity so the race for the playoffs in the NBA is usually less compelling.

    • Morgan Wick says:

      To add to my earlier comment, the NBA is a more star-driven league, to the extent that the Heat might as well be the “LeBron-Wade-Bosh Show”, the Lakers might as well be the “Kobe Bryant Show”, the Bulls might as well be the “Derrick Rose Show”, and the Team That Must Not Be Named might as well be the “Kevin Durant Show”. Even if the NHL could cultivate that many stars, they’re a more team-driven sport and stars aren’t on the ice for much more than a quarter of the time.

      Also, hockey goals happen too fast to be exciting.

  7. Sean says:

    You were so close, yet missed the point by a mile. The Winter Classic didn’t save the NHL on TV. Sidney Crosby did.

    All the momentum is related to Crosby. The first Winter Classic was a success because Crosby was involved. The best Versus ratings always include the Penguins. The Pens in the Stanley Cup brought those ratings back to respectability. Even Ovechkin became a household name due almost solely to the rivalry with Crosby & the Pens series. Heck, even the insane ratings for both USA/Canada Olympic games can be contributed to Sidney Crosby.

    Like it or hate it, the NHL has been rebuilt on Crosby’s shoulders. He brought the league, and its ratings, back to respectablity and to a point where it can succeed in his absence. But is there any doubt the poor NBC ratings through the end of the regular season coincided with a lack of Sidney Crosby showcase games?

    Much like the NBA was nothing before Magic & Larry, the NHL was in a similar superstar void coming out of the lockout.

    Sidney Crosby saved the NHL on Network TV. If there wasn’t a Sidney Crosby, there wouldn’t have been a Winter Classic. At least not in its present, successful form.

    We don’t see it now because the NHL has been able to cultivate new stars. But just three years ago, there was no Patrick Kane, no Steven Stamkos, no Sedin twins, etc. etc. on a mainstream, national level. Crosby was the face of the NHL. He should get his own personal cut of the new TV contract.

  8. Jeremy says:

    I agree with the comment about fighting. US citizens will not, en mass, accept fighting as “within the rules”… Sure, fights break out in the NFL, NBA, and MLB all the time. When it’s a scuffle, usually nothing that big happens: unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, some technical fouls and a few free throws. And, if it’s an out-and-out fight with fists flying/people bleeding, players are kicked out of the game. All of this happens because fighting like this is AGAINST THE RULES.

    In hockey, fighting scuffles are often off-setting penalties. Out-and-out fights: maybe more. The difference on the playing surfaces of the four sports? Not much, when you think about it. BUT: 3 sports do not “permit” fighting. One does. Three say it is outside the bounds of the game and is poor sportsmanship. Hockey says: it’s the way of the sport.

    US citizens (and US media), en mass, will never accept this. Period.

  9. A says:

    The ratings for year’s Winter Classic was greatly helped by a couple of different factors:

    1)) HBO. Their 24/7 series was incredibly well done. That series drew in hockey fans from outside of the Caps or Pens fan-bases. They also drew in quite a few non-hockey fans. FWIW, HBO may have done a better job of driving this year’s WC viewership than NBC ever could.

    2) The rivalries. The Caps and Pens hate each other – no doubt – but the more specific Ovie/Sid rivalry is always fun to watch. And to touch back on #1, HBO did an excellent job of playing up the rivalries.

    3) The weather. It was out of NBC’s control, but Mother Nature’s lack of cooperation helped drive up ratings this year. By airing squarely in prime-time, NBC/NHL landed up with one of the precious few non-repeat shows on that evening. The time shift also meant that the WC didn’t have to compete with other sports for viewers. So, Caps/Pens/hockey-in-general fans were supplimented with sports fans that normally don’t watch hockey and additional non-fans that were pulled in from the HBO series. Those added up to record viewership for an NHL game.

    IMHO, NBC could take some lessons from HBO on how to market hockey to the masses from the first two points, and they could take some lessons from Marketing 101 from the happy-accident that was the last point.

  10. Rob says:

    Sean, I never reply to comments or leave comments, but I just had to take the bait on this one…..are you serious with that post? Are you actually Pat Brisson? You should really get a life. No matter how many fans around the league question Crosby’s sexuality, I don’t actually think he likes guys, so I’m sorry to tell you that you don’t have a chance with him, so you should probably get off his sack and try to live your own life.

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