This shouldn't be a surprise, but it's something to point out.
The 2016 NHL Winter Classic, which matched the Canadiens and Bruins at Foxborough's Gillette Stadium, drew its lowest television rating in the game's eight years.
Think about it this way. The Winter Classic is another regular season game played outside at a baseball or football stadium. Much pomp and circumstances goes into the event, and it does do better in ratings than the early round games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But, it continues to see a decline in viewership that we saw last year, when the 2015 Winter Classic between the Blackhawks and Capitals in Washington D.C. posted the lowest rating ever.
For the first time in the game's history, ratings fell below a 2.0 this season, which never looks good.
Several things can be factors in the Winter Classic's declining ratings these past two years.
First, college football bowl games.
This will always be a hurdle for the NHL, but the league doesn't seem to be bothered by the early bowl games happening at 1pm ET. The Fiesta, Citrus and Outback Bowls, which all had one-sided results, aired at the same time the Winter Classic did this year. The Fiesta Bowl, which matched up Notre Dame and Ohio State at 1pm to kick off the second half of the "New Year's Six" Bowls, received a 6.2 overnight rating.
Second, the NHL's regional reach.
If you did not know by now, hockey is a regional sports. In certain markets, teams receive huge television ratings. In others, it's the opposite. Like they don't exist.
Montreal and Boston is a great, Original Six rivalry that hockey fans in the U.S. know very well, but it's not enough to make those outside of the Boston/New England market tune in. People don't watch the NHL like they do the NFL. You will watch the late game on CBS or FOX regardless of who plays in it, but you're not watching the Sunday evening NHL game on NBCSN in February.
And third, the over-saturation of outdoor games
I had to scratch my head and wonder why the NHL scheduled six outdoor games during the 2013-2014 season. The league was coming off a shortened lockout year where the Winter Classic never happened, so maybe there was an urgency to makes sure the outdoor game concept remained popular. The annual Winter Classic took place at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and matched the Red Wings up against the Maple Leafs in front of over 105,000 fans. Much like the inaugural 2008 Winter Classic, it was a snowy atmosphere, and it finished in a shootout win for the Leafs, much like the finish in '08 when Crosby netted the game-winner at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The NHL could have made the Classic the only game that season and rode that momentum into next year, but they wanted to make it bigger.
A game at Dodger Stadium, two games at Yankee Stadium, another game at Soldier Field, and the Heritage Classic in Vancouver expanded outdoor games into March. Sure, it was amazing to see outdoor hockey in Southern California and in the Bronx, but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. It may be the reason why last season's Winter Classic in Washington D.C. fell to deliver the same numbers the game in Ann Arbor brought in 2014.
Last season, the NHL cut back on the number of games, and had just one at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. This year, The Minnesota Wild will host the Chicago Blackhawks outside at TCF Bank Stadium and the Red Wings will play the Colorado Avalanche at Coors Field.
Also, throw in the fact that the same teams are playing in these game on a constant basis.
Here are the teams who have played in the Winter Classic and the number of times they have:
Red Wings: 2
Maple Leafs: 1
Now let's look at the other outdoor games in the United States:
Just looking at the numbers, the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won three Stanley Cup title since the 2009-10 season, have made the most appearances. Other appealing television markets like New York, Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh get picked to play and or host these games. You have to give the league credit for expanding games out to the west coast, but locations like Los Angeles and San Francisco won't host the annual New Year's Days game. The Rose Bowl is usually a 4pm/5pm ET kickoff, and the NHL is smart enough to avoid going up against that game. Also, there are not enough markets that could keep that rating above 2.0, and the lack of colder climates that can provide you that "snow globe" effect that was seen in Orchard Park and Ann Arbor are not large in number for the U.S. market.
The NHL should keep the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, but put the Stadium Series on hiatus for a few seasons and focus on getting the ratings for the Classic back to where they were two years ago.