Did The Winter Classic Save The NHL on Network TV?
April 25, 2011 16 Comments
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.