WASHINGTON — Maybe there wasn’t all that much buzz for the 2015 Winter Classic after all.
The New Year’s Day tilt between the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals, despite being perhaps the most compelling, well-played game of all seven Winter Classics, drew a 2.3 overnight rating, the lowest in the history of the event.
The Capitals’ 3-2 win on Troy Brouwer’s goal in the waning seconds at Nationals Park simply didn’t draw as many eyeballs as the league would have hoped. The game was sold out—42,832 fans packed the park—yet the TV numbers took a steep drop from last year’s game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Ann Arbor Stadium in Michigan.
Here are the U.S. ratings for all seven Winter Classics.
|Winter Classic ratings|
|2008||Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo||2.6|
|2009||Detroit vs. Chicago||2.9|
|2010||Philadelphia vs. Boston||2.6|
|2011||Washington vs. Pittsburgh||2.8|
|2012||N.Y. Rangers vs. Philadelphia||2.4|
|2014||Toronto vs. Detroit||2.9|
|2015||Chicago vs. Washington||2.3|
So why did the 2015 Winter Classic fail to register? Here are five possibilities….
1. America has Outdoor Game Fatigue
Yes, this was the seventh Winter Classic, but it was also the seventh outdoor game in the past 12 months. Call it a Stadium Series game, call it a Heritage Classic, call it Gary Bettman’s Outdoor Wonder Emporium; fans are still watching hockey played in an outdoor stadium.
Maybe the novelty of a novelty game has worn off now that it’s no longer a novelty.
The league will still turn a massive profit on Blackhawks-Capitals, but what this diminished rating could mean is an even lower number for the San Jose Sharks-Los Angeles Kings game at Levi’s Stadium in February.
Bettman has said the league thinks they will have three or four outdoor games next season. Perhaps the ratings of this season’s outdoor games will lead to the league rethinking that idea.
2. College football carved into the audience
By starting at the game at 1:25 p.m. ET despite significant sun glare, the NHL avoided having any overlap with Oregon-Florida State, the first of two College Football Playoff semifinals that day. But the Winter Classic was matched against three lesser, but still interesting, bowl games in the afternoon: Auburn-Wisconsin, Michigan State-Baylor, Missouri-Minnesota.
The fact that three games featured hockey hotbeds potentially distracted by their state’s marquee college football teams could not have helped. Another problem may have been Auburn-Wisconsin was a great game that went to overtime, and while the Caps and Blackhawks were playing a dramatic third period, Michigan State was storming back from down three touchdowns to win in the final seconds.
Last year’s Winter Classic was pitted against Nebraska-Georgia, UNLV-North Texas, Iowa-LSU and Wisconsin-South Carolina. There are not a lot of hockey fans in that mix.
Bowl season didn’t do the NHL any favors in 2015.
3. The setting wasn’t all that compelling
Players will tell you that outdoor games in baseball stadiums are much more fun because the crowd is closer to the rink. That’s great for them and the fans in attendance, but maybe it’s not as big a deal for people at home to watch a game in a place where Stephen Strasburg was once shut down in September to preserve his arm.
Fenway Park has all kinds of history; Nationals Park has all kinds of…meh. It’s a nice park, and you should absolutely get there for a baseball game, but maybe the casual fan wasn’t all that excited to watch for that reason.
Last season, there was the excitement of playing an outdoor game in front of more than 100,000 people. Last season, there was snow.
This season, there was none of that.
4. People don’t understand the greatness of Alex Ovechkin
Bear with me on this one. Mention Ovechkin’s name to a casual hockey fan, a non-Capitals fan, and most of them will probably think about his plus/minus, how he doesn’t play defense, how he’s lazy, how he’s blah, blah, blah.
Is it possible that nearly a decade of coverage focusing on the weaker aspects of his game, unfairly most times, caused an erosion of positive sentiment toward Ovechkin that turned off enough fans in non-Washington, non-Chicago markets?
Sidney Crosby is the best player in the game, no question. Most people believe this, so they are drawn to him, especially in big events like this. Yet the skills that make him great are more subtle: His anticipation skills are unrivaled, his vision is among the best to ever play the game and his ability to control the puck along the boards is outstanding.
Crosby can skate, pass and shoot a bit, of course, but his tools aren’t as visually appealing as Ovechkin’s.
Ovechkin is a physical force who skates like the wind and has a cannon for a shot. Coach Barry Trotz referred to him as a “rock star” after the game, which is an apt comparison.
Yet that’s not Ovechkin’s strongest association. To most, he's the lazy Russian who doesn't backcheck hard enough.
Personally, I could not care less about the NBA. Yet if LeBron James is participating in a big game, I’ll most likely watch it, at least for a little bit. Ovechkin feels like the talent equivalent to James in a lot of ways, yet hockey fans clearly didn’t feel that way based on these Winter Classic ratings.
Ovechkin is appointment viewing most nights, so on a stage like this, it's strange few felt that way.
Maybe this is the end result of a decade of stories about his bad plus/minus.
5. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy
If enough people say there isn’t buzz about an event, do people assume it’s not a buzz-worthy event, then choose not to watch? Fans take their cues from the media sometimes, and if they hear enough times that no one cares about something, perhaps they decide not to care about it too.
Or maybe no one cared from the outset. It’s impossible to know what came first—the chicken or the buzz.
It just doesn’t make a lot of sense that the 2012 game between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers earned more eyeballs than this 2015 game. Maybe it was a combination of the above factors, but it’s hard to understand why a game involving a team that’s won the Stanley Cup twice in five years and another with the game’s most exciting player did so poorly.
All statistics via NHL.com and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.