SBJ/Jan. 10-16, 2011/Opinion

Lessons abound as NHL Winter Classic continues to impress

Abe Madkour
Two recent stories showcased data illustrating trends that we’ll be watching, to see whether they carry over into sports. Pollstar’s year-end numbers show North American ticket sales for the top 50 concert tours were down 12 percent. Without road warrior Bon Jovi and the widely praised return of Roger Waters for “The Wall,” it would have been a disaster. Why the drop? Increasingly inflated ticket prices, unappealing experience and a lack of new star power. Do some of these themes sound familiar? The sports business should learn, again, from the music business.

On the heels of this came data from Hollywood.com that showed movie studios sold 1.35 billion tickets
in 2010, the lowest number since 1996, when 1.33 billion were sold. Movie attendance fell 5.4 percent from
2009, the largest drop since 2005. Simple lessons — people don’t have to leave their home and pay for entertainment. It must be compelling, enjoyable and offer value. All these elements are daily talking points in sports.

Brands always want to be part of mainstream cultural conversation, and the NHL achieved just that with HBO’s “24/7.” At two recent holiday parties — mixed crowd, couples and singles — the main topics of conversation were the creepiness of “Black Swan” and the excellence of “24/7.” People who couldn’t care less about hockey were enthralled about the show and the personalities and the habits of its subjects, the Capitals and Penguins. No one can say whether this will translate to more interest or fans, but for a period over the last month, these two teams and the sport were exposed in a positive and compelling light, and there are no negatives to that.

I continue to be impressed by the NHL Winter Classic, an innovative creation the league can sell around and promote — and the media’s interest in it really surprises me. At SportsBusiness Daily, my colleagues and I were amazed at the depth of coverage leading up to the game. Then more than 500 credentialed media spread the story on game day. For an event that garners less than a 3.0 rating, the amount of coverage it generates is remarkable. Regarding the rating, frankly, I expected at least a 4.0 with the game in prime time on a Saturday, even being the lowest night of viewership and a holiday. Before I get the angry “You don’t get it” calls, I want to be clear. It’s a good number, and the NHL should be happy. It was the best regular-season audience since 1975, and the highest viewership over the four years of the Classic. Look at the trends:

2011
2010
2009
2008
4.5million 3.7 million
4.4 million
3.8 million

But I expected the number, with the promotion and hype of “24/7,” to be higher. I am sure John Collins and others at the NHL did as well. The game killed it in Pittsburgh (32.0) but didn’t fare nearly as well in D.C. (7.6), and there’s still the major challenge of increasing the appeal of the event and hockey outside the sport’s core markets. No easy answers there.
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