Friday January 2nd, 2015

The bad news came a day after the Capitals and the Blackhawks delivered what may have been the most entertaining Winter Classic to date.

NBC is reporting a 2.3 overnight rating for the New Year’s Day game from Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., the lowest overnight number for any of the seven Winter Classics.

Oh, the horror!

There already have been some pretty comical attempts to spin the news, including this gem from NBC Sports PR that swooned over the fact that the ratings were up 77% over the regular season game average from 2013–14. But no one’s going to buy that silliness. Nor was anyone caught by surprise.

No matter how dramatic the ending, Thursday’s game had plenty stacked against it from a television perspective, starting with competition from a raft of highly anticipated college football bowl games. Add in the fact that this year’s Winter Classic served as the showcase for a low-wattage rivalry and it actually is a wonder the ratings were as high as 2.3.

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Sure, Chicago is a marquee franchise, exactly the sort of team that should guarantee eyeballs, but there’s a fatigue factor to consider—the Blackhawks have made three outdoor appearances in the last five years, including last winter’s Stadium Series game at Soldier Field. Washington? The Caps may have Alex Ovechkin, but he's a draw in the manner of an aging Tom Cruise. Ovi is famous enough, but he's nowhere near as compelling a draw as he was years ago (and despite the best efforts of GEICO, Nicklas Backstrom will never be a draw of any kind). And with no history or storyline drawing these clubs together, the matchup made as much sense as a fish on a bicycle.

And then there was the setting. While the league did a spectacular job with the layout, Nationals Park is ultimately just another cookie-cutter baseball stadium, lacking the visual or historical hooks that might get viewers to drop the remote the way they did for hockey in the Big House or at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.

GALLERY: THE NHL OUTDOORS

Truth is, both of those hurdles are fairly significant moving forward. There aren’t half a dozen American teams that are capable of drawing the sort of TV numbers the league wants. You’ve got the Red Wings, who drove the two highest rated Classics (2009 and ’14). The Penguins with Sidney Crosby. The Bruins, likely the hosts of next year’s event. Maybe the Sabres, especially if they add Connor McDavid next summer. After that? The NHL and NBC will have to hope for the best.

Magical locales? Those are few and far between. Beaver Stadium, home of Penn State football, is an intriguing option. Coors Field in Denver is plenty picturesque. Lambeau Field would be a coup. So would Notre Dame Stadium. And while a game in Central Park or in a real-life Mystery, Alaska, would be murder on hockey-related revenue, they'd both make for more spectacular TV than what we got on Thursday (though the setup did look great).

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Of course, that’s just wishful thinking because the whole thing comes down to HRR, doesn’t it? Compared to the typical home game it replaces on the schedule, the Winter Classic is a financial windfall, generating at least five times the standard gate revenue, with special-event pricing and tens of thousands of additional seats. Add millions more from merchandising and sponsorships, and even after you factor in the additional costs that go into staging an outdoor game it’s still a massive win for the league.

Make no mistake. Those are the numbers that really matter to the NHL, not a couple of extra points on the Nielsen scale.

That doesn’t mean that the league won’t look to punch a class above its weight next year. The rumored Boston–Montreal game at Foxboro Stadium, if it comes to pass, makes sense on every level. Maybe the league will splurge on between-period entertainment to build some buzz outside the hockey world. Maybe it will climb back into bed with HBO just for the cachet the relationship brings.

Or maybe the NHL will just accept that the Winter Classic will have its ups and downs, as most annual events do.

The league has carved out a nice little TV niche for itself on New Year’s Day, with a bit of room to grow. Given everything else the game brings, maybe that's good enough.

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