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Big markets and the Winter Classic

September 26, 2011


Sidney Crosby gearing up at 2008’s Winter Classic in Buffalo.

A very poorly kept secret was finally announced in a press conference at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia today. That secret is that the Flyers will face the Rangers in this year’s Winter Classic on January 2nd, 2012. THe press conference involved speeches by both ownership groups, the mayor of Philadelphia, Donald Fehr and Bettman, all flanked by four Flyers and three Rangers, their captains included. Their audience was a group of Flyers fans, in an itty-bitty segment of the park. Made for TV, really. Oh, are there will be a 24/7 HBO series, too.

I count myself among the legions of NHL fans whose jaws drop when they see the network schedule released each year and notice just how many New York-market and northeast region teams make it to NBC and Versus. It’s understandable why Canadian teams get such spotty coverage (and god forbid you’re an American that fancies a Canadian team or the atmosphere in their arenas)–there’s TSN, CBC, RDS and Rogers to handle that in Canada. Why was having an American market tune in? But then you’ve got nice healthy markets like Dallas or Florida that get very little love in these national broadcasts. And this brings me to the Winter Classic, the marquee event for NBC in their hockey schedule. Buffalo, Pittsburgh, DC, Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit–they boast big markets, well-known brands.

Have the Predators take the Coyotes in the 2013 Winter Classic and you’ve got…ah…what? I would watch that. But would the average viewer?

Frustrating as it is for fans of about 20 other teams in the NHL to see the big clubs gulp the lion’s share of Winter Classics and NBC/Versus slots, unfair as it is (and it is, I don’t deny that), from a marketing perspective, nothing is so salient as the big teams. For the uneducated or unversed hockey fan, seeing a recognizable group of guys on your TV, whether it’s the Wings or Rangers, is worth watching. It’s reassuring. For the same reason people will watch the Colts or the Yankees, the Lakers or the Red Sox, watching what’s considered excellent (as in, the team is a quality one) and watching a known commodity, is what you’ll do.

Seeing Crosby on Heinz Field? Bingo. It’s salient, it’s attractive, it’s easy. Everyone who’s a hockey fan will tune in regardless, but so too will those channel surfers on the prowl for something compelling. And here’s the thing, say that channel surfer is in Colorado, or Phoenix, in Tampa. Say they don’t often watch their home teams play. Maybe watching the Pens and the Caps convinces them “hey, may it’s worth $50 to go check out a game of theirs.”

And maybe they do. And that’s where all this big market media bias helps.

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