The annual outdoor Jan. 1 Winter Classic has been an important piece for both the NHL and NBC since its 2008 beginnings, and it’s spawned documentaries on HBO and Epix, created a spinoff Stadium Series, been a key part of the overall rise of hockey in the U.S. and done very well in the Canadian market. However, last year’s Winter Classic (Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals, in Washington, D.C.) posted the lowest U.S. overnight rating (a 2.3) and viewership (3.47 million viewers) in the event’s history, and the lowest Canadian viewership in five years (1.07 million viewers).

Leading up to this year’s event (Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, from Gillette Stadium Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern), the NHL’s trying plenty of new approaches to enhance the Winter Classic’s profile, and there may still be further things they can do. The key question is if there’s still a lot of room to grow this event, though, especially given the various factors the league is up against.

There’s a lot to like about how the NHL’s approaching the 2016 edition of this game. For starters, there’s an impressive rivalry involved this time around, as the Canadiens and Bruins are not just Original Six teams, but ones with a substantial history of great playoff clashes against each other. That’s an element that wasn’t present in last year’s Chicago-Washington game, and it should make the alumni game (3:30 p.m. Eastern Thursday, NBCSN/Sportsnet) particularly interesting. Rosters for that game include legendary players such as Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, and Ken Linseman for the Bruins and Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson, and Guy Carbonneau for the Canadiens. Plus, there are fascinating coaches on each side, including Don Cherry and Mike Milbury for the Bruins and Guy Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer for the Canadiens. A strong alumni game and this tremendous overall rivalry should help enhance this Winter Classic’s appeal.

NHL Network is also heavily promoting the Winter Classic, broadcasting NHL Live live on location Wednesday night and featuring plenty of further on-location coverage Thursday and Friday in the lead-up to the big game. They’ll broadcast the Bruins’ and Canadiens’ practices Thursday, starting at 11:30 a.m. Eastern, and they’ll feature reports from the practices, the alumni game and the inaugural Women’s Winter Classic (more on that below) in special editions of NHL Tonight live on-location that start at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. Eastern. On Friday, they’ll have a two-hour on-location pre-game show starting at 11 a.m. Eastern, and they’ll also air a post-game show after the main event wraps up. NHL Network’s coverage features a substantial cast, including hosts Jamison Coyle, Jamie Hersch and Kathryn Tappen, senior reporter E.J. Hradek, and analysts Mike Rupp, Kevin Weekes and Scott Stevens; they’ll do on-ice demonstrations and illustrations as well. On-location coverage of this scale is never cheap or easy, but it can play a significant role in building up a big event, so it’s positive that NHLN is doing this.

The inclusion of women’s hockey for the first time ever may further help to enhance the Winter Classic. It took a lot of effort to get this exhibition between the CWHL’s Les Canadiennes de Montreal and NWHL’s Boston Pride put together, with plenty of tension between the two leagues, and it came together in a very short time frame over the last few months, with the teams only being completely confirmed on Christmas Day. Sadly, the NHL’s Patrick Burke told Puck Daddy’s Jen Neale that televising or streaming that game (scheduled for 2 p.m. Eastern Thursday) currently seems unfeasible despite the league’s desire to do so:

Q. If there was so much money dedicated towards the game, why isn’t it on TV or streamed online? 

Those were other meetings I kind of blackout in. They talk about logistics and I’m like, “Let’s just talk about hockey! It’ll be fun!”

It comes down to the issues that go along with this. Who owns the rights to this game? The NHL is retaining video rights, so we can show highlights, and anything like that.

Again, until six days ago, we didn’t know which two teams were in. We didn’t know how that would affect sponsorships, how that affects streaming, how it affects international TV rights, how that affects whether its Sportsnet who wants to broadcast it or NHL Network or NBC Sports or NESN, if it’s national or international, if it’s local or if its regional, all that type of stuff.

People are asking why we don’t use one of the [NHL’s] streaming services. Okay, now were bringing in the league’s TV people, their media people, and now we’ve got more independent contractors.

Why don’t you use [the CWHL or NWHL’s] streaming services. How do we pick which league? If we say we’re going with one league, the other league is going to call us and say, “You’re driving traffic to that league’s website. You’re making all NHL fans aware of their streaming services, now we’re getting screwed in this.” It’s a whole other headache and negotiation to get this done.

I wish there was streaming. [The NHL] wishes this was on every TV channel on the planet. We wish EVERYTHING we did was on every screen ever, all the time. There’s no malicious or lazy reason that this isn’t happening. There are legitimate reasons why, when a game gets announced four days before it’s going to happen, why not everything can be done the way we would like it to be done.

Burke went on to tell Neale that streaming is still possible, but unlikely:

I assume that the league will keep revisiting every option possible. I know 100-percent if there is a way to pull off streaming in a way that makes sense for all the parties involved … I know the NHL wants to do it. I know that for sure. I know that for a fact.

I think the idea that the NHL is not broadcasting this game because either we don’t feel like it or because we don’t want to show women’s hockey [is incorrect]. The commitment, in terms of hours, in terms of energy, in terms of logistics, in terms of money, that the NHL put into this event, for anyone to say we’re not showing it for anything other than the fact that it’s really, really, really difficult to get it shown is asinine. 

So, while the inclusion of women’s hockey here is a nice step, and while it will certainly be great for the participants and those who are able to watch in person, the lack of a broadcast or streaming option may limit its overall impact and its ability to boost the profile of the Winter Classic. That may change in future years, though; with a presumably-successful Women’s Winter Classic under their belts and with more time to properly plan and arrange logistics, this could become an annual part of the Winter Classic, and one with proper broadcast and streaming coverage. That may be one way to grow this event long-term.

There are other options out there, too. Although the impact of outdoor games may be starting to wane a little thanks to their proliferation and loss of novelty, the Winter Classic is still a big deal for the NHL and its broadcast partners, and they can still do more to promote it. The Winter Classic gets some promotion in the run-up to the game itself, but perhaps it should be more of a season-long focus, especially for the two teams involved in it. The league could perhaps also do more to promote the Winter Classic from a media standpoint, and they should keep in mind that it’s one midseason NHL event that will draw significant attention from non-traditional hockey media. They currently do some things to embrace that, but could do more, reaching out to local and regional media, general sports media, blogs and more to really try and generate a massive Winter Classic hype train. Done right, this would take place over months rather than just a few weeks before the game, and it would have elements that are interesting to the various media outlets involved, whether that’s interviews with current players or alumni or an inside look at what goes into creating an outdoor game like this on any number of fronts.

Even with what they are doing and what they could do further, though, the expectations for the Winter Classic should be kept in perspective. The future’s hard to predict, but it isn’t necessarily ever going to again reach the highest heights we’ve seen in the past, especially in the U.S., where  New Year’s Day is again becoming a significant day for college football (something that wasn’t so much the case when this event began). Even if it does reach that level, there isn’t necessarily huge room for further growth; ESPN’s Vince Doria wasn’t quite right when he said hockey “doesn’t transfer to a national discussion,” but its fanbase certainly isn’t currently as large or widespread as many other American sports.

The Winter Classic can get more existing hockey fans to tune in than any other regular-season game, so it clearly has value, and it probably has more ability to bring in new fans than your average hockey game. Still, it’s unlikely to suddenly make the NHL orders of magnitude more popular. It should be seen in that light; it’s a big event for the NHL and NBC, probably the most significant of the regular season, and it delivers substantial value to both.   With the right moves, it can maintain its already-impressive audience (which is valuable even at last year’s low point) and perhaps even build on it. Don’t expect this event to grow all that much more even with all the right decisions, though, especially now that college football is providing more competition. It can be a player in the sports media landscape; it just may not be able to be the biggest star out there.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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