When the Montreal Canadiens took the ice at Gillette Stadium against the Boston Bruins in the 2016 NHL Winter Classic, they were only the second Canadian team to ever do so. Unfortunately, that little detail didn’t help anything ratings-wise, as the game took another hit in viewership — though the number looked especially low because NBC doesn’t broadcast in Canada, so the total doesn’t include all those Canadian fans. The game drew a rating of 1.6 rating and 2.78 million viewers on a Friday afternoon. It was the lowest rated Classic in the game’s history.
Since its creation in 2008, the annual outdoor game has gotten ratings between 2.2 and 2.5, but has been below 2.0 the past two years. Last year’s festivities at Nationals Park drew a 1.9. Granted, that is a large number for a regular season hockey game, but with viewers on the decline, the NHL could do better at making this event interesting again for a national audience.
The best way to fix the Winter Classic is to kill it. One, over-hyped, well-documented regular season matchup is not enough to draw a casual fan. That model is too reliant on a good skate between two teams, which is completely unpredictable. In 2015, the Capitals and Blackhawks played a heck of game. This year, the Habs blew out the Bruins, 5-1, and it was never close. It sort of made the whole day feel like a failure as a TV viewer.
The league misplayed things when it branched out the “outdoor hockey” brand to other events, creating the Stadium Series in 2014. That series cannibalized the league’s big day — making the New Year’s game just another outdoor game, in a sense. But, if New Years Day became THE outdoor hockey day in America, there might be a chance to reignite the novelty. Instead of one game outside, have three or four. Stick one in Europe, too, if you want to make a bigger splash. An all-day faux-pond hockey extravaganza is more desirable for casual fans than a hit-or-miss one-off.
“At some point, though, one imagines the NHL will need to start getting even more creative, like bringing the game to neutral-site cities with appealing venues. (Think Lambeau Field or Happy Valley or Notre Dame Stadium),” Joe Delessio wrote at Sports on Earth. “Indeed, Gary Bettman said recently that the league has discussed such a thing, even if it’s just talk at this point. Returning to high-profile venues like Wrigley is an option, as well. Or maybe the NHL will even think way outside the box some day and try a game in a non-traditional venue, like a public park.”
These days, most leagues have their own day on the calendar, in which their sport almost exclusively dominates the sports scenery. The NFL has Thanksgiving. The NBA has Christmas. College football is trying desperately to make New Year’s Eve a thing. The Barclay’s Premier League has Boxing Day (Dec. 26.) By adding more outdoor games to the Jan. 1 slate, the NHL could, as gimmicky as it seems, create its own date on the calendar. One random game in a sea of other happenings is not necessarily much to get the average viewer going. But an entire day of programming is a different matter.
When asked about the future of the Winter Classic by USA Today, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman seemed confident that things were fine. “There is almost an insatiable appetite for these games. These games are on our schedule as we are projecting years out,” he said. “We look for matchups and locations that will have maximum appeal on New Year’s Day without trying to overdo it with certain clubs and certain locations. … Everybody wants to host an outdoor game, and we are working our way around. If you look at the purpose of the Stadium Series, it was to give more clubs an opportunity to host an outdoor game. When you go to an outdoor game, it is hard to believe how impactful it is in the community.”
The Winter Classic formula isn’t necessarily broken, but the buzz surrounding the event has certainly dwindled. At this point, however, that might not even matter to the league.
“There’s the notion that ‘rivalry’ in the NHL is in itself a selling point, without anything resembling the bloody days of yore happening on the ice in 2016. (The NHL is, at this point, like WWE: Relying on the highlights and relics of a bygone era in an attempt to draw heat today.),” Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski wrote Monday. “But the final thing to remember here is that the ratings for this event have increasingly become less of an issue for the NHL. … It’s about what happens on-site, and on-site the League and its teams are making money hand-over-fist on gate and on merchandise.”
Toronto is rumored to be the front-runner to host the 2017 event. Until then, we can marvel at the creative weaponry of outdoor hockey fans. Or P.K. Subban’s incredible sense for the big stage. Whether people are watching or not, the show will go on.