Rigorous Preparation Rewarded As 2019 Winter Classic Generates High Ratings

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Photo via NHL

It’s safe to say the Winter Classic has become one of the National Hockey League’s best traditions. This year’s edition between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins contained added intrigue as the event was played at one of the most hallowed outdoor venues in sport: Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

It turns out, the engagement results were interesting too.

The 2019 Bridgestone Winter Classic, played on New Year’s Day, drew a sizable television audience with a 1.94 overnight rating, according to NBC Public Relations. That’s the best rating the event has had in four years and was up from a 1.4 rating in 2014. 

Across NBC, NBCSports.com, and the NBC Sports app, the game averaged a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of nearly three million viewers (2.968 million), forging a 20 percent increase compared to last year’s game, according to Fast National Data from Nielsen, and digital data from Adobe Analytics.

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Considering the marketing efforts leading up to the Winter Classic, stakeholders certainly earned the whopping number of eyes. From an operations standpoint, the work involved in setting up the event — a complex process involving mass cross-functional collaboration — also paid off as the ice looked great from the stands and on television.

To prepare the stadium, it was an intensive process not only for the NHL’s operations team, but for the Notre Dame facilities crew as well. 

First, the field was cleared of its goalposts and any other objects on the field. Then, Notre Dame’s grass field was protected by panels of a thick overlay. After that, the rink was built in the middle of the football field. The NHL brought in special refrigeration units to create layers of ice that reportedly set in over the course of about eight days and reached a depth of about two total inches, according to the South Bend Tribune.

While the physical transformation of the stadium took just over a week, the Notre Dame hockey program and the university had been working hand-in-hand with the NHL to make this event happen. Notre Dame Director of Athletic Communications for Men’s Ice Hockey Dan Colleran explained further.

“Once University Vice President James E. Rohr and Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick worked with the NHL to bring the game to Notre Dame Stadium, our Senior Associate Athletics Director, Business Operations/Hockey Administrator, Tom Nevala, had been a key cog in working with the NHL.

“From the team’s perspective, all support units such as equipment, sports medicine, operations, facilities and communications had been involved since the summer with various meetings, conference calls and site visits to help out our counterparts with both teams and the NHL offices.”

In addition to hosting the game this past Tuesday, the Notre Dame men’s hockey team will face Michigan this coming Saturday in the outdoor stadium. The Irish will also wear special uniforms that pay tribute to the program’s 50-year history.

One unique challenge that will come from the pro game being played on the first of the month and the college game being played on the fifth is the fact that students will not be back on campus for a couple weeks.

“With the games right in the middle of break, there certainly will be fewer students able to attend,” Colleran added.

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Regardless, it turned out that attendance at the Winter Classic was still very high. The game attracted a sellout crowd of 76,126 — the second-highest attendance in the event’s history next to Michigan Stadium’s 105,491 in 2014. This can be attributed to, among other things, the university’s proximity to Chicago and the upper Midwest’s strong connection to hockey. 

The average attendance for the Winter Classic after 11 games is now 58,663.

This past week’s crowd size is a huge jump from 2018, in which the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres brought in 41,821 fans at Citi Field in Queens. Stadium capacity certainly plays a major role in these totals, but it’s impressive nonetheless that the NHL can pack any venue for this yearly spectacle.

Between the high ratings, strong engagement, and the amount of interest this year’s game created, look for the NHL to pursue more college football stadiums as host sites for future outdoor events.