The 2015 Winter Classic posted the lowest ratings in the series history leaving some hockey fans wondering if there is a way to increase viewership or whether or not the event should just be scrapped. Well, I have a three-point plan to “fix” the event and possibly bring in more viewers.
Move the date. college football has officially taken back New Year’s Day in a big way. During the BCS years New Year’s Day college football turned into background noise because few of the games actually mattered. These were the prime years for the Winter Classic to grow, but it still did not push the ratings past a 2.9 which it reached only twice, once in 2009 and again in 2014.
|2.9||2009||Detroit Red Wings vs. Chicago Blackhawks||Wrigley Field, Chicago|
|2.9||2014||Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor|
|2.8||2011||Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins||Heinz Field, Pittsburgh|
|2.6||2008||Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Buffalo Sabres||Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo|
|2.6||2010||Philadelphia Flyers vs. Boston Bruins||Fenway Park, Boston|
|2.4||2012||New York Rangers v. Philadelphia Flyers||Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia|
|2.3||2015||Chicago Blackhawks vs. Washington Capitals||Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.|
If the game could not move the meter during the BCS years it will be even harder now that the College Football Playoff started and most likely will expand in the years to come so it is best to move the date from New Year’s Day. Possibly they could go for New Year’s Eve, but I am uncertain that that will move the meter or draw in many viewers. The solution: Christmas Day.
There should be at least one hockey game on during the Christmas break and it should be on Christmas Day. The game must also be held in either the early evening or at night. Part of the spectacle is atmosphere and ambiance and even if there is no snow, playing a hockey game, outdoors, under the lights, adds to the spectacle. Some readers may question whether or not the NHL will be able to effectively compete with the NBA on Christmas Day, but I believe that these leagues have different fans, at least much different fans than NHL and college football fans. Therefore I believe the NHL would get bigger numbers if they competed with the NBA on Christmas Day than competing with college football on New Year’s Day. Also, if you look at this year, if an NBA star, like Kevin Durant, ends up missing the game that is a chance to draw in more viewers.
Make sure that the teams playing in the game have some type of historic connection or rivalry and promote it as such. I had two friends in their early thirties, who casually follow hockey (it’s better than nothing), who did not even know who played Thursday. This is a small indication of just how poorly the Winter Classic was promoted outside of mediums viewed by regular hockey fans. Also, the NHL has been promoting their Wednesday Night Rivalry over the past two seasons, so why not do the same for the Winter Classic? Blackhawks vs. Capitals does not scream historic rival any more than Penguins vs. Sabres did in 2008. Nothing brings in viewers like a good rivalry. People that did not like the Red Sox or the Yankees, or even baseball for that matter, tuned in to watch them when their rivalry was at its height, it could work for the NHL too, but with the right match-ups. Rivalries bring better entertainment. The ending of Thursday’s game was exciting, as you can see below, but if these teams had a heated history it would have been more dramatic.
For the next six years the match-ups should be: Penguins vs. Flyers, Canadiens vs. Bruins, Blues vs. Blackhawks, Red Wings vs. Avalanche, Devils vs. Rangers and Sabres vs. Leafs. I know I left out Kings vs. Sharks and plenty of Canadian rivalries, but these are good, historic rivalries for teams that have broader and not necessarily a regional following. Also, I think that it is important to spread the games out among the league and here are six watchable games without the same team playing twice during those six years, all of which leads to me to my final point.
Put the game at a neutral site, preferably midway between the two rivals. For example, why not hold the Winter Classic featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers at Beaver Stadium in State College on Christmas Day 2016? Central Pennsylvania has plenty of fans for both of these teams, but it’s a nearly three hour trip either way to see these teams play on their home ice and not many casual fans want to make that trip. So, bring it closer to the fans outside of the traditional radius of ticket holders and it will not only help build a following, but might spark more excitement for the game. The traditional ticket holders will be more likely than casual fans to travel further distances to the game and if not they will certainly be one the viewers of the games, so why not reach outside the market area a little more?
Overall, I like this game and I would hate to see it go away, but if it remains in the same time slot with the similar teams every three to four years it will fade out and go away. Now its time to evolve. My ingredients for success are: to change the date to Christmas Day, book the rivals, promote outside of typical hockey mediums and move the game to a neutral site, preferably a midway point, and watch it grow. Now these are just my suggestions, but I think its fair to say that at this point something needs to change, why not start here?