NHL Winter Classic to make prime-time play?

The weather-driven move to prime time for this year's game raises the question: can the Classic make a permanent move?

The 2012 New Year’s Day Winter Classic hockey game on the CBC and NBC in prime time?

NHL president Gary Bettman floated the idea after the league’s rain-delayed 2011 Winter Classic found surprising teeth on NBC, CBC and RDS last Saturday night.

‘That’s something we’ll have to discuss with our network broadcast partners, obviously,’ Bettman said in a post-game press conference after the Jan. 1 Winter Classic game in Pittsburgh.

NBC, the big enchilada for the NHL as it looks to promote pro hockey stateside, snagged an average 4.56 million viewers for the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Pittsburgh Penguins/Washington Capital clash from a rain-drenched Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

NBC not only won the night in the key 18-to-49 demo, but edged out the 4.4 million viewers that tuned in to the 2008 Winter Classic game, and was well up on the 3.7 million average viewers that viewed last year’s outdoor game on New Year’s Day in Boston.

Preliminary audience estimates from the CBC indicate 1.8 million total viewers tuned in to the 2011 Winter Classic.

But that number comes despite complex scheduling and time zone issues as the CBC, with Hockey Night in Canada, secured 1.7 million total viewers for the Toronto Maple Leafs/Ottawa Senators game, which aired on the full network from 7 p.m. EST until 8 p.m. EST, and then in Ontario only.

The second HNIC game on Jan. 1, an Alberta derby between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, grabbed a total 900,000 viewers as it aired in its entirety in Alberta only and then went to the full CBC network after the Winter Classic ended.

CBC execs had no comment when asked whether the Canadian network would consider a shift of the Winter Classic to prime time starting next Jan. 1, 2012.

Elsewhere, RDS drew 304,000 viewers for the French-language broadcast of the NHL Winter Classic, up 2% over last year.

The upshot is an uncooperative Mother Nature forcing the New Year’s Day game telecast to move from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. led to a first-ever prime-time slot for the Winter Classic, and led Bettman and league officials to consider making it a night-time winter showcase on New Year’s Day going forward.

‘That’s not something we considered until yesterday,’ Bettman told reporters.

A prime-time berth for the 2012 Winter Classic is a real possibility not least because the NHL and its North American broadcasters had to switch the game to prime time last Saturday night on the fly, and the impressive ratings followed little if any promotion for the Capitals/Penguins match-up under the lights.

For example, NBC filled the original NHL game window of 1 to 4 p.m. on Jan. 1 with Winter Classic content such as live interviews and taped coverage of previous Winter Classics.

League officials are privately touting the possibilities of a Winter Classic game in prime time when it is properly marketed.

The NHL reported that its NHL.com website last Saturday snagged 1.2 million hits, up 30% from the 2010 Winter Classic last year. And the Winter Classic game on New Year’s Day also drove the most one-day traffic this NHL season to the league’s NHL-branded mobile site.

The NHL also launched a promotional campaign for the 2011 Winter Classic that fused Facebook into NBC’s New Year’s Day broadcast of the Capitals/Penguins match-up through a watch-and-win promotion.

And the pro hockey league reports its fourth annual Winter Classic game last Saturday peaked at #6 in global trending on Twitter on New Year’s Day.

‘The impact of the NHL Winter Classic goes well beyond television,’ NHL COO John Collins said in a statement.

‘The event greatly enhances all of our global businesses, from NHL.com and NHL Network, to advertising and sponsorship, and of course, the NHL Winter Classic delivered significant economic impact to Pittsburgh,’ he added.

From Playback Daily