- The Washington Capitals: Big in Baltimore (Photo: Associated Press)
After the National Hockey League takes a look at its ratings from Saturday night's 2011 Winter Classic, it's very likely that two things will happen:
1. The Winter Classic will be moved permanently to primetime.
2. Like a college football rivalry, the Capitals and Penguins will play outdoors on New Year's Day every year, swapping between FedEx Field and Heinz Field until fans just get sick of it or Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin leave their teams, whichever comes first.
OK, the second point was a bit of a joke, but it's clear that the 8 p.m. start was a boon to viewership. According to NBC Sports, Saturday night's game drew a total of 4.5 million viewers, making it not only the most-watched Winter Classic (surpassing the 4.4 million who took in the 2009 game between Chicago and Detroit at Wrigley Field), but the most-watched NHL regular season game since the Philadelphia Flyers played the New York Rangers in a game also broadcast on NBC on February 23, 1975.
The top 10 markets and my further thoughts are after the jump.
Here, according to Nielsen, are the top 10 metered markets for last night's game:
1. Pittsburgh, 32.0/46 (Obviously)
2. Washington D.C., 7.6/13 (By comparison, the Redskins October 17 Sunday night game against Indianapolis, also on NBC, earned a 13.2 rating and a 20 share. The October 3 Redskins-Eagles game got a 33.0 rating and a 56 share, while the season opener against Dallas got a 37.0 rating and a 57 share.)
3. Baltimore, 6.6/11 (Judging by the exaggerated "O!" that rang out around Heinz Field during the National Anthem Saturday night, a lot of Caps fans come from Charm City and its environs.)
4. Buffalo, 5.3/8
T5. St. Louis, 4.3/7
T5. Denver, 4.3/7
7. Boston, 4.0/7
8. Richmond, 3.8/6
9. Philadelphia, 3.5/6
10. Columbus, 3.4/6
As you can see, the game did well in solid hockey markets (with the possible exception of Richmond), so I'm not sure the NHL isn't just preaching to the choir at this point when it comes to the outdoor game. The glass-half-full approach is that those solid hockey markets are still tuning in, and in large numbers.
Another point: it's been stated elsewhere, but the NHL got very lucky in terms of timing this year. Not only was the Winter Classic on opposite a dead-rubber Fiesta Bowl game (on cable, no less), but its prominence has coincided with the end of New Year's Day as THE DAY in college football. Where once upon a time you had the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Citrus, and Fiesta Bowls on during the afternoon and evening January 1, you now have the Orange and Sugar Bowls being played on January 3 and 4 this year, with the National Championship decided on January 10. It's sad, but that's the price of doing business in college football.
One final thought: New Year's Day 2012 falls on a Sunday and will likely coincide with the final week of the NFL regular season (if there is an NFL season). Will the NHL (and NBC, who also holds the rights to Sunday Night Football), emboldened by the spike in viewership, hold firm and keep the game in primetime on New Year's Night? Or might we see a one-time only event: a Saturday night Winter Classic on New Year's Eve?
Now that would be something to see.