Winter Classic: What goes up, must come down

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The overnight television ratings for the Winter Classic are in and, not surprisingly, the numbers were down from last year.

The NHL's third annual New Year's Day outdoor game, which this year pitted the Philadelphia Flyers against the Bruins at Boston's Fenway Park, seemed to generate just as much interest as the two previous contests, but the ever- important TV ratings showed a different story.

The overnight numbers from the game revealed a 2.6 Nielsen rating, marking a 10.3-percent decline from the 2009 Winter Classic, which featured the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings battling it out in Wrigley Field.

Could it be that the NHL's highest-profile regular-season game is losing its luster or was the ratings dip due to some other issue, one that could be corrected perhaps? Most likely, ratings for the event are just leveling off, a trend that is inevitable for every television program this side of American Idol.

First of all, the number drawn by the Flyers-Bruins clash, which Boston won, 2-1, in overtime, was not by any means a disaster for the NHL. The 2.6 rating still represents the league's second-best regular-season showing since 1996. The best, of course, was last year's Winter Classic, which pulled a 2.9 rating.

Boston won the Winter Classic 2-1.
The ratings may also have been lowered thanks to some bad luck when it came to the Philadelphia market. The Flyers had to go head-to-head with Penn State football and it should come as no surprise that the Nittany Lions won that battle.

The hockey team has a passionate fan base in Philly, but the Flyers had little chance of outdrawing Penn State, especially when you're talking about a New Year's Day bowl game going up against a regular-season NHL game. In the end, the Penn State-LSU Capital One Bowl, which began coverage at 1 p.m. (ET) just like the Winter Classic, posted a 10 overnight rating to easily win the day in the Philadelphia market.

That being said, maybe the NHL should've considered the Penn State connection more when selecting the Flyers for the Winter Classic. Scheduling the event on New Year's Day will always put hockey in direct competition with college football in the U.S., but Philadelphia's strong interest in Penn State makes it an even tougher battle.

Still, the NHL knew die-hard fans of the Orange and Black would at least travel to Fenway in droves and that was a good enough reason to put the Flyers in the outdoor contest. It was a calculated risk knowing Penn State always has an excellent shot to play in a bowl game on New Year's Day and if the Nittany Lions had played on another day, who knows, we may have been talking about a ratings increase rather than a drop-off.

There is also the fact that the NHL is making tons of money off the Winter Classic even when you take TV ratings and there relationship to advertising money out of the equation. The event is still gaining ground in terms of notoriety and the Winter Classic is steadily becoming a brand name that is capable of luring sponsors and advertisers.

Overall, the Winter Classic appeared to be a success for the league once again, just so long as one doesn't focus entirely on the TV ratings. There will be dips in viewership from time-to-time, but the league will eventually learn what franchises and particular markets are best equipped to bring home the bacon, TV ratings-wise.

As usual, the league will take its time in revealing which teams will face-off in next year's Winter Classic, but it'd be shocking if the 2011 edition doesn't feature Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. The Russian superstar has shown the ability to lure TV audiences in the U.S. and Ovechkin's sense of showmanship is a perfect match for the outdoor game.

Who knows, maybe this year's ratings dip is the first sign that the novelty of the Winter Classic is beginning to wear off, but the NHL knew that was bound to happen at some point.

As long as the league can maintain interest in the annual game at a level close to what it has been in the first three years, they're in good shape. The league never could've predicted the success story that the Winter Classic has become and it's still too soon to fret about the event's possible fall from grace.

If the ratings fall even further next year, however, it may be time to ready the panic button.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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