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Winter Classic success tied to revenue, spectacle, not just TV ratings

Whether there may have been a lack of buzz or not, the Winter Classic was a success. The game itself brought in big bucks and continues to give the league a true mid-season spectacle.

The successes of the 2015 Winter Classic included a superbly competitive game, excellent outdoor ice, a boost for the sport in Washington DC, a joyful experience for fans at Nationals Park and a lucrative payday for the NHL. But things fell somewhat short with the U.S. national TV audience, which recorded its lowest audience figures on NBC since the event’s 2008 debut. The final tally of 3.47 million viewers for the Blackhawks-Capitals game was a 21 percent decline over the Maple Leafs-Red Wings matchup a year ago at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, which drew 4.4 million, the highest ever posted for a Winter Classic matinee.

The top audience ever was for the Capitals-Penguins 2011 game, played in prime time, attracting over 4.52 million viewers. The previous low was the 2010 Flyers-Bruins game at Fenway Park, which drew 3.68 million. Various media types offered all sorts of explanations for the decline, including the fact that the Hawks and Caps are not exactly rivals. Both clubs, however, have star power. Some maintained the reason was that Nationals Park was not an iconic venue, which overlooks the fact that historic Fenway was the setting for the previous lowest TV audience. More typical was the belief that fans are weary of outdoor hockey, although the lineup of college bowl games, which included contests featuring Wisconsin, Michigan State and Minnesota – all from strong hockey regions – may have played a more significant role eroding potential Winter Classic viewership. And when curious channel surfers landed on NBC and didn’t see the players battling snowfall as well as each other, it’s likely many kept surfing, less interested in a game that lacked nature’s entertaining wild card. Yet another factor might have been the end of HBO’s partnership with the league to promote the Winter Classic on their all-access reality “24/7” series. At its best, “24/7” supplied abundant pre-game buzz to the annual Winter Classic build-up and got people talking well in advance of New Year’s Day. Whether it was Bruce Boudreau’s F-bombs,

Ilya Bryzgalov’s ruminations of the universe or Randy Carlyle’s battle with a toaster, each year “24/7” managed to find quirky moments to bait the hook and reel us in. The HBO-NHL pact dissolved last summer amid rumors that the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, worried about omnipresent camera distractions, had restricted HBO’s access. The league then enlisted former HBO Sports president Ross Greenberg, who started working with the league in 2011 on NHL Original Productions, to create Road to the NHL Winter Classic. In the U.S., the series was mounted on the premium cable channel Epix, which, while available in 50 million homes, has roughly 10 million subscribers. HBO, by contrast, has about 30 million customers and great brand recognition. (In Canada, it was shown on Sportsnet). The first four episodes of Road, the last of which aired Tuesday, were a close approximation to 24/7, perhaps too close in some ways. The camera work, editing and pacing aped HBO’s and by now are clichés. But they were not redeemed by any surprises or quirky characters or segments. The scripting was efficient although, at times, overblown with gusts up to preposterous. Too often, storytelling was forgotten: Road hardly mentioned that the teams were headed for any sort of showdown on Jan. 1, and even small points went unexplained, like why Chicago coach Joel Quenneville repeatedly yells “Peanut butter!” or the reason the Caps present their postgame hero with an Abe Lincoln hat and beard in the dressing room. With few exceptions, everything came wrapped in the same earnest tone with the same sense of drama -- so much so that Washington’s record breaking 20-round shootout with Florida had little special feel and even the emotions surrounding the jarring death of Hawks assistant equipment manager Clint Reif barely stood out, although the images on screen contained genuine, deep grief. Road viewers got good portraits of some players, but the head coaches, Quenneville and Washington’s Barry Trotz, overwhelmed the screen. Both carpet-bombed the F-word to such a degree through four episodes that it grew mundane. The pair joked about their verbal excesses on camera as they walked off the National Park ice. The musical soundtrack was uninspired. The use of on-ice audio, so revealing in each HBO episode, was only prominent in Road during the outdoor game. Most of the earlier episodes’ special audio came from the benches. And what should have been the big audio-video payoff of the series –

Jonathan Toews exiting the penalty box to confront referee Francois St. Laurent, gesturing at the ref’s helmet-cam, following the Caps Winter Classic game-winning power play goal – didn’t make the cut. As a result, Road generated none of the pre-game or post-game buzz of its predecessor. Perhaps, that will improve in Part 2, the run-up to the Kings-Sharks Stadium Series game. As for the Winter Classic ratings, NBC and the NHL could take solace in the fact that 3.47 million U.S. viewers remains a strong number on a day that has traditionally belonged to college football. And regardless of viewership, the league’s outdoor games remain a formidable live spectacle and huge revenue generator.



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