Sunday, 10 January 2010

Breaking Down The Winter Classic

Written by Phil Hecken, and featuring Thomas Clark and myself.

Last New Year’s Day, the NHL held it’s third annual Winter Classic, a pairing of the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers in historic Fenway Park in Boston. Building upon the successes of the previous two matchups (the inaugural Winter Classic, held in Orchard Park’s Ralph Wilson Stadium and the second Winter Classic, staged in classic Wrigley Field in Chicago).

The first matchup featured the Pittsburgh Penguins, sporting their gorgeous powder-blue throwbacks versus the Buffalo Sabres, also sporting vintage-inspired uniforms. The return engagement seemed even better for uni-enthusiasts, pairing the hometown Chicago Blackhawks - again, in vintage-inspired unis - and the Detroit Cougars, wearing this gorgeous getup.

Ratings for the first two Classics were, relatively speaking, quite good, since both games were played on New Year’s Day and were up against Bowl Games. Hoping to fill a void in its programming black hole, NBC (which owns the rights to NHL games along with Versus) rolled the dice and decided viewers (especially casual viewers who might not otherwise care about hockey) would be thrilled with the premise — outdoor hockey (old school) with teams wearing throwback (or vintage inspired) uniforms. Great idea — a uni watcher’s dream — but was it a gimmick or a well planned and executed alternative to viewers accustomed to nothing but football at the mid-day hour? The early ’success’ led us to believe that the Winter Classic was destined to become a New Year’s Day staple for years to come. Surely, the third Winter Classic would eclipse the first two, at least in the only important demographic to network executives — the Nielsen ratings.

Well, the results are in, and as I had predicted and feared — they’re NOT good. But really, is the Classic losing steam, was this just a one-year blip, or were there other factors that had viewers seeking alternatives to hockey on January 1? Is there a crack in the ice?

I’m going to be joined by Thomas Clark, who has at least two passions in life, both of which are pertinent here: he loves hockey and he follows (and has been following) the Nielsen ratings for the game for years. I’ll also be joined by Hockey Wing President Teebz, with whom I worked diligently on last year’s Winter Classic article, and who I had asked to do a write up on this year’s contest while I handled the Rose Bowl with Larry Bodnovich and Michael Princip. They will offer their analysis and opinion on this year’s Classic, and to help us judge if the event is as strong as ever, if it’s dying (so to speak), and what the NHL and NBC can do to bring it back stronger than ever next year. With that, I’ll turn it over to Thomas:

First, an explanation of the Nielsen Ratings (Not to be confused with the Leslie Neilsen Ratings) and then a direct analysis of the numbers:

Rating = 1% of all televisions owned in US.
Share = % of all televisions in use during the time of broadcast tuned to that broadcast

2008 Winter Classic: National 2.6 rating/5 share.

Buffalo Local 38.2/58
Pitts Local 17.7/30

2009 Winter Classic: National 2.9 rating/6 share.

Detroit Local 10.5/21
Chicago Local 11.8/21

(Of note these two ratings were the highest Local DMA’s nationally)

2010 Winter Classic: National 2.6/? share

Boston Local 14.4/29
Philly Local 6/11

As far as personal opinion/observation on the 3 WC’s here’s my take:

2008 – You had the novelty of the outdoor game, people were excited at the mere idea of an outdoor professional game in the US. You had star power in Crosby and you had two very supportive hockey cities. For a local share it was perfect, there were no other games involving local teams on the same day. Though the Michigan-Florida game was a marquee matchup with large alumni bases that drove the ratings in the time slot.

2009 – Though the novelty of the game itself had worn off we got two big draws, this year the game was at Wrigley and it featured a rivalry. Detroit and Chicago are large cities relatively supportive of hockey. Arguably this is the best pairing possible for a WC without including Canadian teams or a repeat team (Crosby/Ovechkin is still likely the best layman’s draw). The numbers showed either the strength of the matchup or the relative weakness of the bowl games on the day. Michigan State did play Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, which again won the time slot.

2010 – A relatively weak matchup on several levels. The Flyers-Bruins is not viewed by most of the country as a rivalry, neither team has a truly marketable star for the average joe, and a baseball field had been done before. Fenway was a big draw, and did help pull some people in and you had two very large TV markets (both Top 6) that would help carry the national share based on the local share. Both are relatively supportive, though I would argue that both are merely sports towns vs being highly supportive of either individual club.

Thanks Thomas, and with his follow up, here’s Teebz:

This year’s Winter Classic was accurately described by Thomas above, but that doesn’t mean that there was any reason for the numbers to drop. And, in fact, losing 10% of the overall viewership doesn’t do the NHL a whole lot of favors.

However, there are reasons why they didn’t generate the same television numbers as the Chicago-Detroit game, and most of those reasons have to do with the state of Pennsylvania. Or rather, Penn State.

Football is the top dog in the sporting world in the US. There’s no denying this. Penn State was playing in the Capital One Bowl at the same time as the Flyers were playing the Bruins, so something had to give. Being that the Flyers are somewhat horrible this season, it seems reasonable to suggest that only the hardcore Flyers fans tuned in from the “City of Brotherly Love”. And even some of those people may have decided to watch Penn State play LSU.

Looking at the numbers, the Flyers-Bruins game had lower numbers in Philly than the Capital One Bowl game, but that was to be expected. But why are we focusing solely on the TV numbers as a negative when this game was the second biggest TV draw for hockey on NBC in the last decade?

If you want to measure success, things need to be kept in context. This was still the second-best showing for the NHL in the last decade on US television, and that says a lot. For a “realtively weak matchup” and a game that featured no truly marketable stars, the 2.6 says a heck of a lot of people outside of Philly tuned in watch. Had the Philly numbers not been so low, we might be talking about a 2.9 again.

Perhaps the NHL should have told NBC that Washington is a better choice when it comes to ratings. Alex Ovechkin’s high-flying offence probably would have been more fun than the NBC ratings-induced choice of Philadelphia. However, NBC learned from this, and there is no doubt that Alexander Ovechkin will be playing on New Year’s Day within two years.

The Nielsens ratings also don’t take into account the number of people in Philly and elsewhere across the US that may have DVRed, PVRed, or TiVoed the game. As reported in the New York Times, ratings of a show can actually increase between 7% and 12% with some “increasing by as much as 20%”. The average increase seen by the networks was approximately 10% when DVR numbers are factored in – the same amount the NHL lost on this game. So while Penn State was battling LSU, there may have been a number of people in Philadelphia and elsewhere across the USA recording the Winter Classic in order to watch it after the Capital One Bowl game. Since this game was on a Friday and on a holiday where some people tend to overdo their social imbibing, the chance of this game being recorded is very high. The chance of Nielsens factoring in the DVR factor? Very low.

Secondly, the NHL made the most money it has ever seen off a Winter Classic this season. With over $8 million generated in ticket sales and over $3 million generated in television advertising, this was the best Winter Classic financially for the NHL since they started. And that includes 71,000 people that packed into Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. In fact, this year’s Winter Classic had the lowest attendance total of the three games, yet the NHL still made the most money off ticket sales. 38,112 fans packed Fenway as compared to the 41,818 fans in Wrigley Field and the 71,217 fans in Ralph Wilson Stadium. That has to be a sign of success, no?

When the NHL begins losing money off this venture, then we’ll talk about changing the event. If they make 10.3% less next year than they did this year, we have a reason to examine the viability of the Winter Classic.

Finally, we need to view this from a marketing perspective, and the NHL reportedly did very well on that front in Boston this year. The fans at Fenway Park had rave reviews of the event, the media were enamoured with Fenway’s history and nostalgia, and the NBC broadcast was good if not great. Overall, things were done well, and, after three shots by the NHL at this outdoor game stuff, this one should run like clockwork. For everything said about it, the glitz and the glamour did not tarnish once people stepped through the gates at Fenway or turned on NBC at home. And that’s exactly what the NHL wants.

While there are still things that the NHL needs to improve – finding a better matchup, perhaps – this game was an overall success. If you’re interested in just the TV numbers, the overall number is disappointing when compared to previous years, but that’s due to a large number of people in Pennsylvania watching Penn State in the Capital One Bowl. Of course, the NHL cannot predict which NCAA team will be playing in which bowl, so we’ll call this a case of bad luck, not bad planning.

However, if you look at the money that was made, the numbers don’t lie. This game was a resounding success. And to be honest, the NHL cannot be unhappy with 2.6. It is, after all, the second-best hockey telecast in the USA in the last decade.

That’s gotta be a sign of success, isn’t it?

Thank you both gentlemen. We’ll have some parting words from both Thomas and Teebz momentarily. I realize the 2010 Winter Classic could be considered a major step back for the NHL, but I want this to succeed — I’ve really enjoyed the past three Classics, and I’m hoping to enjoy many more in the future. I don’t necessarily fault the NHL or NBC for picking the locale or the two teams — they were hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time by repeating the formula for the highly successful second classic…old baseball stadium, throwbackish uniforms, one of the “Original Six” teams…hell, they even jettisoned the ridiculous “Where’s Waldo” contest they had last year. Unfortunately for them, possibly due to the factors mentioned above, this one was a step back. Certainly not enough of a step back to warrant scrapping the game, but if the downward trend in the Nielsen’s continues, 2011 could be the last game.

Ah, but it doesn’t have to be. Looking forward, I’ve asked Teebz and Thomas to suggest a game and location for next year, as well as possible throwback uniforms for the teams to wear. If the NHL can really make the Winter Classic a New Year’s tradition, they’d better pick it up a notch in 2011. (As a side note, the following three “predictions” for 2011 were made completely independently from one another — so if they look alike, that’s purely coindidental.) Now then, here is Thomas with his vision for next year:

2011 and Beyond:

There are two things that are certainties for the future of the Winter Classic: The NHL wants one in New York and Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will be involved somehow. The creation of the Yankee Bowl for the 2010-2011 bowl season has really thrown a wrench in any plans the NHL had of hosting the Winter Classic at New Yankee Stadium for the next few years. It is still possible for it to happen if the Yankee Bowl is played on Christmas Day, but that is a stretch. If the NHL is merely concerned about the host city going forward and not the venue we could very likely see a game at the new Giants Stadium (which would cause some scheduling headaches for sure) or Citi Field. The game would most likely feature the Rangers vs the Capitals.

Two other options that I can see happening is a Penguins vs Capitals game most likely hosted at Beaver Stadium. The other possibility is a game hosted by the Minnesota Wild. The issue with Minnesota is that their national brand isn’t very strong so the opposing team would have to have a strong pull which would make finding a logical opponent difficult, but the Wild are pushing the NHL very hard on this. Colorado, Washington, or Dallas would probably have to suffice.

For our Canadian friends I suspect you can look forward to a Winter Classic (Heritage Classic) of your own in the next two years, most likely anchoring Hockey Day in Canada on CBC. This would of course feature two of the six Canadian teams.

I’m a bit young to have a good handle on throwbacks, but here’s my best educated guesses for possibilities:

Rangers (this or this): These two designs are different enough from their current sweaters to drive sales.

Capitals: I would actually expect a fauxback in this case. Most likely this would allow the Caps to create an alternate jersey and debut it on a national stage so Ovechkin can drive sales.

Wild: Either a variation of their current third or a pre-black North Stars sweater.

Thanks again Thomas. And now, here’s Teebz with his parting shot:

Personally, if the NHL has gone through Boston, New York City has to be thrown into the mix. The problem is that there aren’t any places of history that the NHL can use to its advantage. Old Yankee Stadium is done. New Yankee Stadium hosts an NCAA Bowl game. Rockefeller Centre just won’t hold 40,000 people. So where do you put the game?

My choice? The brand-new Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The surface is FieldTurf and it will still be brand-new. That means there will be no middle hump in the field like the ice-makers had in Buffalo. Secondly, it will hold 82,500 people, creating the opportunity for the largest crowd ever to take in an NHL game. Lastly, you provide the opportunity for all Americans to take part in something they are used to at football stadiums: tailgating. They did it in Buffalo, and it was a huge success, so why not bring it back? Get NBC out there in the parking lot, and show off how much fun the EVENT portion of the game is, and stop worrying about the game so much. I truly believe this is entirely why the NFL is so popular – it’s an entire event, not just a regular season football game between 2-12 and 4-10 teams.

I’d like to see the Washington Capitals in their old white uniforms take to the ice in the game. The Rangers, while remaining fairly constant in their look, should use a look from their historic past. While the 1946-47 look would be neat to see, the Rangers should use their look from 1994 with the vertically-arched names.

Capitals vs. Rangers from the Meadowlands with 82,000 other people? That’s a heckuva New Year’s Day party if you ask me!

Thanks Teebz. And now, here’s my parting shot:

The Rangers (and the New York market, which is generally devoid of a ‘hometown’ football team) would seem a logical choice to play in, if not host, the fourth Winter Classic — one of the “original six,” great tradition (if not cups) and one of the most recognizable sweaters in the game. I would think the NHL would jump at the chance to get both the Rangers and New York in the next game.

Were they to select the Rangers, I would love to seem them “throwback” to their vintage 1932 sweater, featuring the iconic diagonal wordmark that still exists today. If that’s not “far removed” enough to move merch, they could always don the 1946 vintage beauty (as shown above), with the radially arched wordmark. Either one of these would be a fine uniform selection.

If the Rangers are selected to host (which, although not my personal choice, not that I’d want the Isles in their Fisherman unis either), then there isn’t an “obvious” venue — NYS (New Yankee Stadium) may be out, due to it’s probable hosting of the “Yankee Bowl” for college football, OYS (Old Yankee Stadium) met the fate of the wrecking ball, which leaves New Shea or either Giants Stadium or Meadowlands Stadium (the new stadium is finished, btw, that’s an old photo); to my mind, none of these venues is perfect. Citi Field would be a lousy place (no history, and baseball fields aren’t generally fan friendly for hockey games due to poor sightlines), and Meadowlands Stadium would likely not be available — the Jets and Giants may need it, but they would have to keep it available in any event; that leaves Giants Stadium, which might be the best venue, and it seats a boatload of people which would help with the NHL’s revenue stream. Is it ideal for an outdoor hockey game? Probably not, but it’d be no worse than Ralph Wilson Stadium, and (assuming there are no plans to dismantle it before New Year’s Day) it could be prepped and host several different hockey events (like Fenway Park has done) over a week or two.

Opponent? Hmmm. Despite the “star power” found in Ovechkin, I believe the NHL would be making a big mistake in trying to feature one player (who might be injured and not even play), and the Rangers versus Caps isn’t exactly hockey history at it’s best. Nay, I think the NHL should make the Original Six/Canada connection, and set up the Toronto Maple Leafs as the opponent. The Leafs also have a strong uniform history, and could go waaaaaaay back to sport this 1927-28 gem, or throw even farther back and become the Toronto St. Pats (love the brown breezers).

For you non-hockey history buffs, the Toronto St. Pats started as an amateur ice hockey organization. In 1919, the club purchased the Toronto National Hockey League (NHL) franchise from the Arena Company and the NHL. The club renamed the franchise the Toronto St. Patricks club and operated the franchise until 1927, when it was sold to a partnership of Conn Smythe and Toronto investors — the rest, as they say is history. If the NHL won’t allow for a color-on-color game, they could still wear this version.

Would a Rangers/Leafs Winter Classic be the best matchup? Probably not, from a pure hockey standpoint, but I would think it might be the best from a marketing standpoint, and really, for the Classic to remain a viable alternative on New Year’s Day, they need to try to bump their ratings back up to what they achieved in 2009. Alternative venues and teams will I am sure be discussed, but I think an outdoor game, in a large stadium with decent sitelines and a possibility for snow (but likely not EXTREMELY frigid temperatures) could lead to a huge gate... and the Rangers/Leafs with awesome throwbacks might just be the springboard the NHL needs to keep the Winter Classic going for years to come.

There you have it. A look at the past Winter Classics and three separate (but very similar as it turns out) visions for the 2011 edition. What say you, Uni Watchers? Where, whom, and what unis? Let’s hear your thoughts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great write-up. I found your blog over winter vacation and devoured about half your articles in one go. I'm fairly new to hockey, and your blogs is one of the few out there that really help contribute to my hockey IQ.

I agree that New York is due to host a Classic, but I think it'll still end up versus the Caps. It's unclear to me how much power NBC has over these decisions, but I think they would go with "recognizable name + star power" over "good team that will draw fans not covered by Nielsen ratings." Those 1927-1928 jerseys would be beautiful though...


(I think you're missing a link for the Meadowlands Stadium btw, you mention a photo that isn't there).