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National TV Ratings Don’t Mean the 2020 NHL Winter Classic Wasn’t a Huge Success

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1.9M views nationally was the lowest in Winter Classic history, but that figure doesn’t tell the whole story.

2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

Last Friday, NBC released the television ratings for the 2020 NHL Winter Classic. After a couple days of praising the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators for delivering such a fun and successful event, it was no doubt a disappointment to hear that the game drew in only 1.9 million viewers nationally, a one-million drop from last year’s game and the lowest viewership in Winter Classic history:

Considering this year’s Winter Classic was the second highest attended game in NHL history, I doubt the NHL is losing much sleep over these numbers. But there’s no doubt that NBC is upset with the lack of viewership, and considering they have a large say in who plays in the marquee event, it’s fair to wonder if this hurts the chances of other non-traditional hockey markets hosting the Winter Classic.

But first, let’s tap the brakes a little and give some context to these numbers. First of all — as can be seen in the above chart — the ratings for the Winter Classic have been in decline since 2014. The only exception is a small spike upwards last year in 2019 — if you compare this year’s ratings to 2018, the drop off is only 0.51 million. When looking at two-year rangers, that decline is third to 2015-17 (0.91 million) and 2014-16 (1.63 million).

The simplest explanation for this decline is that casual fans are getting tired of outdoor games. The year 2014 marked the beginning of the NHL’s Stadium Series, with four outdoor games in addition to the Winter Classic that season. The NHL has since scheduled only one additional outdoor game (with the exception of 2016), but it’s no surprise that the Winter Classic ratings have diminished since more outdoor games were introduced.

It’s also worth pointing out that NBC knew what they were getting themselves into when Dallas and Nashville were scheduled to play in this year’s game. This was the first Winter Classic to feature a team that wasn’t either an “Original Six” team or the Pittsburgh Penguins. Unlike teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks or the Boston Bruins, the Stars and Predators lack a large national following, hence lower views across the U.S.

But as for the local TV markets? Dallas and Nashville killed it:

In other words, it isn’t Dallas and Nashville who failed to deliver when it came to Winter Classic interest — though the 86,530 fans in attendance should have told you that much already. Rather it was the rest of the NHL fans who didn’t turn on the TV on January 1 yet were more than willing to log onto Twitter and blast Dallas for low TV ratings a couple days later.

(Speaking of social media, it’d be curious to see if the declining TV viewership is being supplanted by a rise in engagement on social media, and/or fans viewing the game on various streaming services, legal or otherwise. But that requires data that is currently unavailable, and is thus a story for another day.)

Now, critics will argue that for NBC, it doesn’t matter who watches the game, just how many. But I would argue it’s the other way around — currently, the NHL is failing to grow in popularity at the same pace as the other premier sports in the United States, namely the MLB, NFL, and NBA. Therefore, it should be a priority for both the NHL and NBC to “grow the game” by reaching untapped audiences, leading us to the following stat line:

As already mentioned, Nashville and DFW came out in full force to watch this year’s Winter Classic. Many of those fans — including no doubt several in attendance — have probably seen very few, if any hockey, games before. Considering the theatrics aside, the Stars and Predators delivered a pretty fun and exciting hockey game, so it would be no surprise if both NHL teams have picked up some new hockey fans.

Not to mention that the game also delivered strong ratings to markets that don’t even have NHL teams, such as Oklahoma City and Richmond. For NBC, those are the exact type of people you’re looking to hook onto hockey — they presumably have little to no allegiance to an NHL team, which means they’re more likely to just watch whatever NHL game is airing on a given night.

At the end of the day, NBC wishes they picked up some more viewers, as they no doubt do every year. But by taking a chance on “smaller” markets like Dallas and Nashville, they have reached an untapped bounty of viewership, and it’s now up to them and the NHL to make sure they keep those potential new fans hooked on their product.

So while the NHL might take a step back towards more traditional markets in the immediate future — the Minnesota Wild have already been announced as the host for the 2021 NHL Winter Classic — don’t write off teams like the Carolina Hurricanes or the Tampa Bay Lightning as potential hosts yet. It’s in the interest of everyone involved that more people get exposed to an event like the Winter Classic, and in that realm this year’s event was a slam-dunk success.