Remember when you first saw your favorite band?
Everything was new and exciting. You heard songs like “Nightrain” in a live setting, drank crappy beer in a parking lot, and crossed one off the bucket list.
Then you saw that band for a second time. It was cool, but the setlist was mostly the same. They added a few tracks here and there, and maybe the venue was different, but it was never going to be better than the first gig.
That’s how I feel about the Winter Classic, which posted its lowest TV rating on Monday afternoon. NBC’s 1.4 household number brought an audience of 2.48 million people, which was the fourth-consecutive drop in viewership since 2014, when the game was played at the University of Michigan’s “Big House” between Detroit and Toronto.
These are the numbers dating back to 2008, when the first game was played between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York:
Here’s another way to look at it, with a clear downward slope:
In 2018, the Sabres are the NHL’s second-worst team, so obviously NHL fans at-large weren’t clamoring to watch them play a Rangers squad that currently sits in 7th place in the Eastern Conference. The game was also shown opposite a close game between Notre Dame and LSU, which is a rough battle considering how many national eyeballs – usually watching NBC, which airs the Winter Classic – the Fighting Irish garner.
Ratings were also down locally, according to Buffalonews.com:
Monday’s game from Citi Field in the borough of Queens in New York City had a preliminary 12.4 rating on WGRZ-TV (Channel 2), the local NBC affiliate, during game action. The rating peaked during the overtime at 14.4.
That’s a strong rating for a regular season hockey game.
However, the Sabres’ shootout loss to Pittsburgh in the 2008 game had a 38.2 rating on Channel 2.
NBC Sports spun the numbers as a win by comparing this year’s Winter Classic to the ratings typically pulled by a regular season national broadcast:
The 2018 NHL Winter Classic on NBC, featuring the Rangers v. Sabres, produced a 1.42 HH rating & a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 2.484 million viewers, doubling the average viewership of last year’s NHL on NBC regular-season games. pic.twitter.com/Y6JKtZknHs
— NBC Sports PR (@NBCSportsPR) January 3, 2018
That’s great PR right there. People are still tuning in to watch the Classic more than your average nationally televised game, they just aren’t doing it the way they used to.
One problem is the repetitive nature of the game. The Sabres and Rangers were each appearing in their second Winter Classic, one team playing in 2008 and the other in 2012. It doesn’t feel like that Flyers/Rangers game at Citizens Bank Park was that long ago, does it? It pulled a 2.1 nationally, for 3.73 million viewers, and is tied for 5th in overall viewership. It was also played on January 2nd, not January 1st, since the NHL didn’t want a scheduling conflict with the final NFL Sunday of that season.
Only 11 teams have played in 10 Winter Classics, all of which have been geographically and climatically restricted to northern football and baseball stadiums. It was fun to watch the Blackhawks play at Wrigley Field in 2009, but less interesting to see them at Nationals Park in 2015.
And while the old school northern teams are a core part of the NHL demo, they aren’t always the best or most exciting. Right now you’ve got the Tampa Bay Lightning and upstart Vegas Golden Knights leading their respective conferences. A Winter Classic with Jack Eichel and J.T. Miller is alright, but if I’m watching a nationally televised game in 2018, I’m more interested in Nikita Kucherov and Wild Bill Karlsson. Of course, those northern markets – Canada, too, when they were finally included – move the broadcast needle in a way that Phoenix and Carolina won’t, so it is what it is, to a certain extent.
Now, we have seen some of those warmer-climate teams play outdoor games in the NHL Stadium Series, which was launched as a redundant complement to the Winter Classic back in 2014. Instead of one outdoor showcase game per year, the league decided to water down the product by creating something that was ultimately the same. They played one in Los Angeles and another in the Bay Area, but most of these games have been held in late January and early February in places like Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh. The NHL is cutting back on the Stadium Series and only scheduling one game per season now, with the Flyers playing the Penguins at the Linc in 2019 and the Capitals hosting the Leafs at Navy’s football stadium this March. Notre Dame Stadium will host the next Winter Classic.
There have also been a handful of outdoor games featuring Canadian teams, four as part of the “Heritage Classic” brand and a pair of one-off games in 2017.
So while the spurt and success of outdoor hockey was a really cool thing to see back in 2008 and 2009, it quickly became diluted with too many games. Sometimes less is more, and new blood would be nice to see as well.
Another issue is that these games just don’t make for good TV viewing. The camera angles are rough, the distance from the seats to the rink is significant, and it can sometimes be hard to spot the puck or specific players both in person and on the tube.
Check out the shadows here:
What a pass by Hayes. pic.twitter.com/oKNMoKFWme
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) January 1, 2018
I had to watch that twice while squinting to find the puck:
Watching these terrible shadows at NHL Winter Classic figuring it’s just a matter of time before a star player suffers a serious injury in an outdoor game. But these games make a ton of money and that’s all that matters to NHL.
— Stu Cowan (@StuCowan1) January 1, 2018
This NESN article brings up some good fixes to the game, which includes moving it to February and taking a much closer look at the stadiums used.
I agree 100% with this passage:
“Surely, Citi Field is a nice play to watch a baseball game. But it’s not even 10 years old. Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia, Gillette Stadium in New England, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh … they’re just kind of “meh” venues with no real history or panache. The venue is part of the whole package. Hockey at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park piques your interest.
When the NHL heads to Notre Dame Stadium next year, that will be worth watching, with Touchdown Jesus overlooking the action.”
The NHL has a good thing going for itself with the Winter Classic, which doesn’t need major fixes, just tweaks here and there. If you involve some more teams, avoid college football competition, and do what you can to improve the broadcast quality, I think the ratings probably go back up.
It’s not a broken game, it just needs some attention.