Is Winter Classic the key for greater NHL success in the US?

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The matchup for the 2011 Winter Classic was so good that not even a seven-hour delay was able to stop a ratings victory for the NHL.

This year's Winter Classic featured the Penguins and Capitals, the respective clubs of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who happen to be the league's biggest attractions.

In that respect, it was fitting that rainy conditions Saturday at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field pushed the game's start time back from 1 p.m. (et) to 8 p.m., allowing the game's biggest stars to face off in prime-time.

The Capitals won the game, which despite the delay was still hampered by rainy weather, but the real victory came later when the TV ratings in the United States were announced.

According to an NHL press release, the league's fourth annual outdoor game on New Year's Day was the most-watched NHL regular season game in 36 years as the event pulled in average of 4.5 million viewers during NBC's telecast.

That may not seem like much considering the U.S. population is around 310 million, but this year's TV audience represented a significant 22-percent increase over the 2010 Winter Classic between the Bruins and Flyers at Boston's Fenway Park.

"By all measures, this will be the most successful NHL Winter Classic yet," said NHL COO John Collins. "We are thrilled with the strong viewership and growth on NBC, especially considering the short notice on the time change and the head-to-head hockey competition we ended up facing in eight of our U.S. markets. The impact of the NHL Winter Classic goes well beyond television."

The league's fourth annual outdoor game on New Year's Day was the most-watched NHL regular season game in 36 years.
Combine this year's ratings with the fact that Winter Classic games account for four of the NHL's five most-watched regular-season telecasts since 1975, and it's pretty obvious that the league has forged a real connection with the casual American hockey fan.

But can that bond be a lasting one? The real trick for the NHL now is to make the connection with those fans on a day other than the First of January. The league has certainly scored a TV ratings success in the U.S. with the Winter Classic, but it's still too early to tell if the event is actually creating new American hockey fans.

After all, who are these people who usually don't watch hockey, but are tuning into the Winter Classic year after year?

The fact that the all-important 18-49 year old demographic is well represented is certainly a good sign for the NHL, but that doesn't tell us a thing about whether or not the league can convert the Winter Classic fans to become full- time hockey enthusiasts.

Perhaps, the NHL's best bet in using the Winter Classic as a tool to widen its fan base is appealing to those viewers not yet in the 18-49 demo.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and those in the league office have certainly been trying to catch the eye of this younger audience with the novelty of the outdoor game. And if they can get kids in the habit of watching hockey on New Year's Day the hope is that it could spread to an increased interest in the sport as a whole.

The league's commitment to gaining a younger audience is also the reason we shouldn't get used to seeing the Winter Classic in prime-time. It's likely that weather will again someday necessitate a night-time staging of the event, but the NHL would rather the game be played early enough to let younger folks watch.

The Classic is obviously still in the infancy stage of its existence and keeping the audience young is key to maintaining the success of the winter phenomenon.

Keeping fans interested with intriguing matchups is also important for the league, but for the NHL that too often means simply riding the popularity of Crosby or Ovechkin. The Penguins have already played in two of the four Winter Classics and it will be interesting to see how long the NHL waits before playing the Crosby card once again.

But the dilemma for Bettman is that he saw what happened to the ratings last year when the Bruins hosted the Flyers at Fenway and pulled in 3.7 million TV viewers in what was the lowest-rated Winter Classic.

Given the choice between being called pro-Crosby for picking the Pens to play in the event every other year or suffering through another ratings bust like the 2010 Classic, it's not hard to figure out which path the commissioner would choose.

But, Bettman and the league will likely stay away from both the Pens and Caps when choosing participants for the 2012 Winter Classic and all that means is that this time next year we'll be talking about what went wrong with the TV ratings.

This success of the 2011 Winter Classic reaffirms that there is considerable value attached to the New Year's Day event, but the NHL still needs to find the best way to capitalize on it or it will lose out on what could potentially be a much bigger hockey audience in the U.S.

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