Before the 2016 NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1, we wondered if the league’s efforts to grow this event further would work given the obstacles it was facing. From a ratings perspective at least, it’s now clear that the Winter Classic not only didn’t grow, but shrunk. The game between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens posted a 2.3 overnight rating, the lowest in the event’s history, and the announcement of the final ratings Sunday night got even worse:
Per NBC Sports, the 2016 Winter Classic earned a 1.6 household rating in the US with 2.775 mil. viewers. Lowest of the 8 Winter Classics.
— Alex Prewitt (@alex_prewitt) January 3, 2016
It is worth keeping in mind that the U.S. rating numbers only tell part of the story; the Canadian broadcast numbers also matter, and the NHL is a rare league where its Canadian broadcasting deal is worth more than its U.S. one. Even with the current exchange rate ($1 CAN = $0.72 USD), Rogers’ $5.232 billion Canadian deal over 12 years still produces an average yearly payout of $436 million Canadian, which is $313 million in U.S. dollars. NBC’s $2 billion over 10 years has an average annual payout of $200 million. So, the Canadian numbers are very important for the NHL too, and they aren’t out yet. They may well be decent, especially given that a Canadian team was playing. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Winter Classic has been trending down in Canada too, recording the lowest viewership in five years (1.07 million) in 2015.
On the U.S. side at the very least, it seems clear that the Winter Classic doesn’t have the pull it once did. Part of that in this case may come from having only one U.S. local market thanks to the inclusion of a Canadian team; hockey is still very much a local-team-focused sport. Some of that may come from the lack of novelty; these Winter Classics have been played since 2008, and the Stadium Series expanded outdoor hockey further. A further issue may be stronger competition from college football; there were plenty of significant games Jan. 1, even if many of them wound up as blowouts, and strong college football opposition wasn’t always the case for the Winter Classic.
Still, this should all be kept in perspective. A 1.6 rating and 2.78 million U.S. viewers may be bad by the standards of previous Winter Classics, but it’s better than most opening-round playoff games in 2015. That’s especially true for the opening-round games that aired on NBCSN, where the best audience was 971,000. And this is a regular-season game. The Winter Classic blows the rest of the NHL regular season out of the water ratingswise, and it’s better than many of the early playoff rounds. When you consider that team interest in hosting these games is still strong, that fans are still attending them in great numbers, and that this is still drawing much better as counter-programming to college football than anything else NBC could air Jan. 1, it seems unlikely the Winter Classic is going anywhere soon. It may not reach the earlier editions’ rating peaks, but unless the ratings collapse even further, it seems probable we’ll still see many more Winter Classics.
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