CBS Sports’ Chris Bengel reported on Jan. 3 that the 2020 NHL Winter Classic between the Nashville Predators and host Dallas Stars at the Cotton Bowl drew the smallest television ratings since the game’s inauguration in 2008.
For the first time, the Winter Classic failed to draw two million viewers, as this year’s event managed around 1.97-million. It’s the fifth straight year the game drew less than three million viewers.
MORE: What the 2020 Winter Classic meant to the NHL, Dallas and the southern hockey fan
Bengel suggested one reason for this year’s decline is the Winter Classic went up against two college football bowl games. He also pointed out it’s no longer the only outdoor game staged annually by the league — the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche will play an outdoor game on Feb. 15 as part of the NHL’s Stadium Series.
Some observers might attribute the decline to this year’s Winter Classic participants — the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators — not coming from traditional hockey markets. Both clubs do lack a recognizable superstar on the level of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby or Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.
While the Winter Classic may have been a dud in the national American ratings, the Dallas Morning News’ Matthew DeFranks reported that the game set records in Dallas and Nashville as the most-watched regular-season contest for both clubs.
For the host Stars, the Winter Classic was a smashing success. DeFranks noted the game drew 85,630 fans, making it the second most-attended game in NHL history. The demand for tickets forced the league to open up more seating. He also pointed out the Stars ordered more Winter Classic jerseys than any previous club. Those jerseys sold out within two days. Around 20,000 Predators fans also attended the game.
How the game fares in its host market explains why the annual Winter Classic still matters even if its luster has faded on the national level. It helps sell the game, especially in so-called ‘non-traditional’ markets, and generates excitement among the local fan base. It opens those supporters to a unique game-watching experience they otherwise might never get to see.
Winter Classic 2020: A recap of the Stars’ New Year’s Day win over Nashville
The same can be said for the league’s annual All-Star Game. Some observers believe the event is no longer a worthy showcase for the game’s elite talent and call for its abolishment. The game’s quality of play, admittedly, is a joke: players want to avoid injury from participating in a glorified exhibition contest so they refrain from physical contact, turning the game into an offensive free-for-all.
However, while the All-Star Game struggles in national television ratings, it draws well in the host cities. Fans get to watch the league’s best talent all play in one place, enjoy their efforts in the skills competitions and provide plenty of support during the game itself.
The St. Louis Business Journal reports the upcoming All-Star Game in St. Louis could bring an estimated $20 million economic impact to the local community. The whole weekend annually serves as a boon to the host NHL city during the post-Christmas period when travel and tourism are down.
The novelty of outdoor games such as the Winter Classic may be waning on a national level, and the quality of play at the All-Star Game remains a mockery of good hockey. Cynics dismiss the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game as nothing more than an annual cash grab by the league.
But as long as interest in both events remain strong at the local level, no one should fault the NHL for capitalizing on it. Professional hockey is a business, and part of it is stoking fan support at every level.
The Winter Classic or the All-Star Game might not matter to the average NHL fan when viewed from afar. But when one of those events is staged in that fan’s hometown, they’ll happily pony up whatever the league wants to attend those games.