The NHL's decision to move tonight's NHL Winter Classic to an 8:00 P.M. prime-time start will continue to add fuel to the growing popularity of the National Hockey League in the United States.
A Mediaweek article dated April 25th of last year referred to the NHL as the "National Hot League" and tonight’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins featuring the two best players on the planet, (Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby), can only help continue to build on last spring's surprising US.television ratings.
This ratings boost really began with NBC's dream matchup in last winter's Olympic Games. The U.S.A-Canada Gold Medal Game was the most-watched hockey game in the United States in 30 years. This overtime thriller drew 27.6 million viewers and the ratings boost from this final game carried over into the Stanley Cup Finals for NBC.
Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks was the highest-rated NHL game on U.S television in 36 years and the Game 6 clincher in which the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup on a Wednesday night in June drew 8.28 million viewers, a 4.7 market share.
NBC earned a 2.6 overnight Nielsen rating for the Flyers-Bruins Winter Classic last year, down 10.3 percent from a 2.9 for the Red Wings-Blackhawks matchup in 2009.
The inaugural Penguins-Sabres Winter Classic in '08 also received a 2.6 overnight rating and a five share. NBC sold its advertising well in advance of this year’s game and revenues are up 20 percent.
There will be 76 cameras on hand this evening representing five broadcasting networks and this Winter Classic promises to be the most-watched of any of the three previous games. With additional coverage by the HBO Series 24/7 Penguins-Capitals tonight’s game should easily surpass previous ratings for the past three Winter Classics.
In an interview on the NHL Network, HBO President Ross Greenburg said that "some three million viewers watched the first episode," which Greenburg said represents “strong audience performance.”
The only major sports competition this evening will be the conclusion of the Rose Bowl between TCU and Wisconsin on ESPN. The Fiesta Bowl follows the Rose Bowl on ESPN but with a Big East dud in Connecticut against Oklahoma, the game does not promise to be a close one and ESPN could lose many viewers to the Winter Classic.
It seems like NHL commissioner Gary Bettman knew exactly what he was doing when he made everyone wait for the Great Eight versus Sid The Kid in the Winter Classic. A rainy day in Pittsburgh making ice conditions difficult only helped in the decision to move to prime time.
Don't forget to check back with bleacherreport.com during the game to catch live instant analysis of this special event. My live blog will begin at 7:45 and will be updated throughout tonight's contest between the Capitals and Penguins.