Chicago Blackhawks Brandon Saad. (Brandon Titus/Inside Hockey)

Winter Classic could face battle for ratings

“My belief is that New Year’s Day used to be about college football, and now New Year’s Day is about the NHL.”

That was Ted Leonsis, speaking this past September at a Winter Classic press conference, on the NHL’s marquee event of the regular season. Leonsis has wanted Washington to host an outdoor game since seeing the Penguins and Sabres face off in Buffalo in 2008. But did the Capitals owner overstate the reach and appeal of the Winter Classic? And, more importantly, does the NHL overestimate the power of the Winter Classic to hook casual fans?

The annual outdoor event has been a ratings success for the league, averaging 4 million viewers per year. Winter Classic games rank among the most-watched regular season games since 1975. In 2011, when the Capitals last played in a Winter Classic in prime time, the game in Pittsburgh drew record ratings for a Winter Classic (4.57 million) and topped the prime time programming on the three other networks.

Ratings for Stanley Cup Finals have increased in the past few years as well. The 2013 and 2014 finals – featuring such big market teams as the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings – have broken ratings records. There is no reason to believe that these playoff ratings successes can be tied to the Winter Classic, though.

After the inaugural Winter Classic in 2008, college football responded by moving most of its big games to the week following New Year’s Day. This year, though, NBC and the NHL may face competition from two college football playoff semifinals. If the league delays the game because of glare on the ice surface, which is a possibility, the Winter Classic could be going head-to-head against the Florida State-Oregon game.

Should the league and its broadcasting partner be wary of the outdoor game losing viewers? Not according to NBC executive producer Sam Flood.

“I don’t think so, because I think the venues play a big part of it,” Flood, quoted by Newsday, said. “It’s the people, it’s the place, and there are hundreds of football games played in stadiums every Saturday of college football.”

After their 11:30 a.m. practice, several Capitals players noted that the glare off of the white ice was distracting, though they will not have a say in when the game is played.

If the 2015 Winter Classic is delayed until 2:30 p.m. or later, it may be a true test of whether or not the NHL has actually taken over New Year’s Day.