Friday, January 2, 2015

What to do about the Winter Classic?

This morning I was having a little back and forth on Twitter with my friend Brendan Darr about yesterday's Winter Classic in Washington. He suggested that the game be moved off New Year's Day because of better college football competition despite a very good game and 2 "brand" teams. I suggested that this was little more than a one-off considering the general lack of buzz about the matchup and the game outside of Washington. The discussion ended with us agreeing to disagree, but it's time to ponder what the Winter Classic really means at this point for the NHL and the teams involved. As the circumstances have changed surrounding the game, so has the game itself.

Consider that the Winter Classic was created in part because NBC lost a bit-part bowl game after 2006. They had rights to show the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day until 2006, when they then lost the rights to CBS. NBC needed something to fill their New Year's Day afternoon slots to go up against the Bowl Games on CBS, ABC and FOX and gave NHL COO John Collins a call. Together, NBC and Collins came up with the idea of a New Year's Day outdoor hockey game, and so it became on NYD 2008 in Buffalo. The game was a smashing success, and so games at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Heinz Field, Citizens Bank Park and Michigan Stadium then followed. The Classic at the Big House was a special event that transcended hockey, and the Stadium Series furthered the outdoor game tradition. But this Winter Classic lacked buzz and juice outside of Washington, mainly because the circumstances about the games have changed from HBO to EPIX to a new park without history and teams with no rivalry. The future of the Winter Classic looks interesting too, as rumors suggest the next game is Montreal vs. Boston at Gillette Stadium. So, what are we to make of this?

The outdoor game started off as a one-off, and became a tradition for the NHL like no other. It became a signature event above the All-Star Game, and adding HBO's 24/7 to the mix only spiced up the game even more. But, has the well run dry with classic matchups in classic stadiums? It looks like it. Now that the Caps have hosted a game, every major NHL city except New York in the US has hosted the game, and NYC is never likely to host a Winter Classic game. 2015's edition had no alumni game, the lack of buzz from the EPIX series, and the added competition of a spicier New Year's Day slate for college football. And while the ratings were the lowest ever, they were by .1 ratings point, and were only .6 below the highest rated Classic ever. The Classic may have lost some of the shine in terms of crossover buzz, but all hockey fans were still watching and still excited, especially those of a Capitals bend. Certainly the Stadium Series didn't help the "signature" outdoor game, but it still made a ton of money  and had those touches that spoke "Winter Classic".

The NHL can't lie down and give up New Year's Day to college football. The game was never going to draw amazing ratings even against the lesser bowl games of the day (the next 2 years the playoff games are on New Year's Day), but the NHL has to do something to goose up the buzz, because this game did have a distinct lack of it. Better marketing outside of the host city is probably a good start, but adding Stadium Series games will lessen the value of the Winter Classic for sure, but the Winter Classic does still have that special feeling even with a lesser matchup and being played in a lesser stadium.

Just because college football got its act together and found New Year's Day again doesn't mean that the Winter Classic should move or fold because of it. The NHL has carved out its own slice of January 1, and they'll always have that little slice for themselves.

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