Monday, January 3, 2011

The Winter Classic: What's next?

At first, a collective groan went up around hockey fandom when the 2011 Winter Classic teams were first announced. There was generally a lot of collective disinterest in hearing more about the whole Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby rivalry¹. The two superstars have been the faces of the NHL for a few years now (what, you mean other players exist?) and the NHL has invested so much time in hyping up the rivalry between these two players and their two teams that you knew sooner or later, they'd match up for something big. But the Penguins had already played in the inaugural Winter Classic in 2008; every other team in the league was eager to get their time in the spotlight. It wasn't exactly - well, fair.
The first Winter Classic was held in a football stadium in Buffalo (Penguins vs Sabres), but the next two were held in iconic baseball stadiums: Wrigley Field in 2009 (Blackhawks vs Red Wings) and Fenway Park (Bruins vs Flyers). This year, the game returned to the gridiron at Heinz Field, the gorgeous new stadium for the Steelers. Playing in a football stadium makes more sense than baseball parks; the layout of the field lends itself far more readily to a rink and its sight lines than does the kite-shaped field that ball parks have.

Hockey fans are used to night games. The idea of the Winter Classic, of course, was to return the game to its roots - a flashy version of pond hockey, if you will - so the original conception is to have a nice winter's day. But the weather for this year's Classic threw a curve ball, however, as temperatures crept into the 50s, and the game was soaked by rain. Pittsburgh - usually frozen tundra in the heart of winter - proved a challenge, and the weather led to a last-minute schedule change, pushing the game back several hours in the hopes that evening temperatures would be colder than mid-day.

It turned out to be a boon for ratings. The Blackhawks/Red Wings game in 2009 had a record 3.2 million viewers, competing directly against traditional New Year's Day football games in the middle of the day. It was the most-watched regular season hockey game in 33 years until this year's Classic, which pulled an estimated 4.65 million viewers in a prime-time slot. (In comparison, this past June's game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final set the hockey record with over 8.1 million viewers.)  Without other sporting events (except, as it turned out, other hockey games) to distract from potential viewers, this year's Classic enjoyed a surge in popularity that cannot and should not be solely attributed to either star player.

There can be little doubt that HBO 24/7's choosing to pair up with the NHL to film both teams in the month leading to the Classic helped boost the ratings. Whether or not you enjoyed either team, 24/7 gave a fascinating look inside hockey: the highs, the lows, the fun, the odd. The only disappointment about 24/7 is that they didn't figure this out eight months ago, and do a 24/7 leading up to the Stanley Cup. (HINT HINT for 2011, HBO!)

It is also to HBO's credit that they did not focus solely on Ovechkin and Crosby, but helped profile and highlight many of the players on both teams. The 24/7 show was excellent hockey programming, and it helped to directly build hype and interest in the Winter Classic. No doubt that some people who never watched hockey before stumbled upon 24/7, watched it, got interested, and watched the Classic as a result. Even fans around the league with a professed dislike or even hatred of one or both teams got swept up in the build-up, and watched the game.

The question now is: where next, and who should play?

So far, the match-ups have been:

2008 Pittsburgh Penguins at Buffalo Sabres
2009 Detroit Red Wings at Chicago Blackhawks
2010 Philadelphia Flyers at Boston Bruins
2011 Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins

The Winter Classic will either always play in the U.S. or at least feature U.S. teams. Canadians will gripe about this ("It's OUR game"), but it has to do with ratings and revenues. The Canadian version of the WC, the "Heritage Classic", isn't a proven thing yet, although it would be interesting to see the New Year's 2-day holiday showcase both sides of the border, with one game on New Year's Eve and the other on New Year's Day.

Three of the four Classics have so far featured Eastern Conference teams; thus, it is time for the game to return to the Western Conference. The best venue for 2012 would be either Invesco Field, home to the Denver Broncos, which seats 76,125; or historic Folsom Field, at the University of Colorado - Boulder, which seats 53,613. Of the two venues, Invesco would be the more likely, with its proximity to downtown Denver, but one could not deny the allure of Folsom: like Wrigley and Fenway, it is an iconic piece of sports architecture - not to mention the beautiful views of the Rocky Mountains from its seats. (And can't you just picture the Winter Classic logo featuring the Flatirons?)

The Colorado Avalanche has been resurgent these past few years; and it would be an excellent opportunity to match up the Avs with a team from a part of the country that is too warm to hold a game outdoors in their own part of  the country. The best choice would be an Avs-Kings match, because the Kings have a strong fanbase - not to mention how great would it be to see Wayne Gretzky strap on the skates once again for the Alumni Game to go with it? Hosting one of the three California teams would also help bring in the West Coast demographics.

Beyond this choice for 2012, where else in the country should the NHL look to host the Classic? Will the league make it a habit to match up two big-market teams, or will they attempt to help build league interest in under-performing markets by matching up big-name teams against teams from markets like Phoenix, Atlanta, Florida?

Many of the major markets have already been represented in the Classic: Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit. Smaller markets have been represented by Buffalo - and, in fact, the first Classic being played in Buffalo had a good enough return to pave the way for future years.

The league is thinking big, of course - how can they use this to their best advantage to increase league revenues? - so ideally, football stadiums - built to handle crowds of 55,000+, offer a more idealized venue choice than baseball fields. Besides, with Wrigley and Fenway already done, few other ballparks in the country can touch those fields for allure.

For revenue's sake, the NHL may have to bring back established brand teams (Chicago, Detroit, etc) to draw larger shares of interest. However, the league should set standards for this; teams should have a minimum five years separating appearances in the Classic. For the league to send a team repeatedly to the Classic but ignoring other teams is like telling some clubs they're just not worthy of attention. Plus, the Classic doesn't just help the league financially, after all; it also helps the local market, as people travel to the venues.

Beyond the game itself and the Alumni game, the NHL should look to make the Classic something people view as a complete entertainment draw. I'm not talking over-the-top Super Bowl stuff, but certainly if the game is played on New Year's Day, then most people will travel to the site on New Year's Eve (or before), so it wouldn't hurt to find more ways to make the event even more appealing. Bring out the Ice Girls. Make sure the mascots get to come along.

Host "skating with NHL alumni", have exhibition games between the two spotlight teams' ECHL or AHL clubs, or other events - easy ways to upsell the tickets sold for the event. How much would you pay to share some ice time with alumni from whichever teams are playing at the event, whether it's just simply ice skating, or maybe some hockey clinics? 

If the league is going to sell the Winter Classic as a major event, then make it a major event. Turn it into a 2- or 3-day full-on affair/vacation destination by pairing it with the All-Star Game, and designing packages to make it appealing and easy for fans to attend. Certainly the athletes would appreciate having more of the holiday week off instead of rushing back for games on the 26th (with only those players attending the marquee/ASG needing to be at practice for the week). 

Also, not scheduling other NHL games on the same date/time as the Classic would be entirely to the league's benefit, as fans would not be splitting their hockey attention between games. This year's rescheduling of the game due to the weather caused that, but if the NHL is going to sell the game and talk it up as a major event, make it a major event, and give the league's full attention to that game.

The NHL immediately looked for feedback on this year's Winter Classic via its fan feedback group, but it would be helpful for the league to open up a poll that more people could fill out about what they found appealing or didn't like about the Classic. After all, this game was bigger than just the two teams who took the ice.

Beyond talking about the structure of the event, let's look at some of the possible future venues - some of the largest college and open-air NHL stadiums within reasonable distance of an NHL team that exist in a part of the country where the NHL ice-making wizards could actually produce a playable icesheet for New Year's:

Michigan Stadium, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI  (109,901)

Michigan Stadium, a.k.a "The Big House", is the largest stadium in the U.S. and the third-largest in the world. The "Big Chill at the Big House," a matchup between UM and Michigan State's hockey teams, set a world record for attendance for a hockey game in December 2010 - and that was a college hockey game. Granted, it was for a pair of fierce rivals, but in a few years, it might be the ideal location for Detroit to host Chicago for a rematch, or for Detroit to host another team. Additionally, it would make a decent neutral location for teams that do not have the kind of weather necessary to host outdoor ice hockey games in winter. Ann Arbor is half an hour from the Detroit airport, making it easy to travel to - meaning that just about any midwestern/central team featured in a game here would no doubt be more than willing to make the trek for this game.

Beaver Stadium, Penn State, State College, PA. (107,282)

Penn State is another location worthy of being a site for just about any northeastern team to match up with another rival. The main drawback of this location is that it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but on the other hand, there's enough local sports fans that they could probably fill the building.

Ohio Stadium, Ohio State, Columbus, Ohio (102,329)

The Columbus Blue Jackets have one of the best college stadiums in their backyard - Ohio State's stadium. Again, like Penn State and U of Michigan, this midwestern location is handy to an airport (Columbus) and a reasonable drive from several markets (Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Nashville, even St Louis) to make it an attractive option.

FedEx Field, Washington Redskins, Hyattsville, MD (91,704)
M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore, MD (71,008)

Either of these large, East coast football stadiums with proximity to three airports (Baltimore, Dulles, and DC) and just a few hours' drive from most East Coast teams (including Carolina), would be an attractive neutral-territory venue - especially FexEx Field, which would allow another 20,696 fans in the seats. Hey - most NHL teams home arenas don't even seat that many people

Meadowlands, NY Giants, East Rutherford, NJ (82,500)

There are many who would argue that playing in the Meadowlands would "demand" putting in the NJ Devils, but I disagree. After all, it is the New York Giants who play at the Meadowlands, so this is the best venue for the Rangers. Other NYC-area venues are either tied up, too inconvenient, or too small for an event like the Classic. However, there is no doubt the Rangers should host and play in a Classic eventually. It would be ideal for them to host a team from the sun belt (perhaps the Sharks, Coyotes, Lightning, or Thrashers?) to provide a spark in the NHL's newer markets paired up against one of the Original Six. Plus, the appeal of being close to NYC for New Year's Eve celebrations makes this a winning combination, and just think of the marketing packages the NHL could come up with for this one.

Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, IN (80,795)
Camp Randall Stadium, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI (80,321)
Lambeau Field, Green Bay Packers, Green Bay, WI (72,922)

Three iconic venues in sports-mad towns. 

Of the three, the University of Wisconsin would be a great location because the local population is hockey-mad. The Badgers have produced national champions, and there are several UW alumni currently playing around the league, among them: RenĂ© Bourque, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski, Brian Elliott, Cory Schneider,  Steven Reinprecht, Tom Gilbert, Adam Burish, Jack Skille, and Jake Dowell - which means that any team with a UW alumni on its roster would not only appeal to NHL fans, but UW fans as well. It would be a neutral site; there's an airport in town, but the city is between Chicago (3 hr drive) and Minneapolis (5 hr drive) as well, meaning fans of either team would not consider it too difficult of a drive.

While neither Notre Dame nor Green Bay are cities that come to mind as "hockey towns", they both have incredible fan bases, and are readily accessible to travelers who might be coming in from throughout the midwest area.

Gillette Stadium, New England Patriots, Foxboro, MA (68,756)
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia, PA (68,532)

Gillette was the the backup choice for Fenway and LFF is the local football venue; so at such point that the Bruins or Flyers play in the Classic again, either of these would be a decent venue.

Qwest Field, Seattle Seahawks, Seattle, WA (67,000)

One of the most attractive and modern stadiums in the NFL, Qwest Field would be an ideal location to draw Vancouverites over the border for a U.S.-Canada matchup. The only problem might be Seattle's winter weather patterns.

Likewise, Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo could be an excellent neutral site for the Toronto Maple Leafs to match up against a U.S. team.

Soldier Field, Chicago Bears, Chicago, IL (61,500)

While the Blackhawks may not return to Classic for a few years, Soldier Field would be a great site for the Blackhawks to host again.

Rogers Centre, Toronto (approx 50,000; retractable roof)

If the NHL ever decides to go over the border to host a game, and the Rogers Centre was willing to figure out how to not break their retractable roof by opening it in winter in order to host the game under open skies, this would be a great spot for the Maple Leafs to host.

Target Field, MN Twins, Minneapolis, MN (42,035)

Finally, a mention of Minneapolis, because Minnesota is the State of Hockey, and a Classic should take place here. As the Vikings play under a dome, brand-new Target Field would be the next logical choice.

 * * *

¹ Side notes: To those of you who might be newer to the game and don't know the history: Crosby and Ovechkin entered the league the same year. Ovechkin not only set NHL rookie records but won the Calder Memorial Trophy (annual award given "to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League"), beating out Crosby to do so. Crosby had been dubbed "The Next One", heir apparent to Wayne Gretzky's ("The Great One") hockey mantle, so there's no doubt that having this sassy, showy Russian beat out the Canadian wiz-kid must've rankled a bit.

Ovechkin has continued to rack up top NHL trophies like the Art Ross (most points in regular season), the Maurice "Rocket" Richard (most goals), the Hart (league MVP), the Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay Award (peer-voted most outstanding player), multiple First Team All-Star honors, and World Championship medals. Crosby has collected his share, including his own Rocket Richard, Art Ross, Hart, and All-Star Honors, as well as the Mark Messier Leadership Award. Crosby, however, has won a Stanley Cup, something that continues to elude Ovechkin. Their two teams have repeatedly eliminated one another during the playoffs, and since they're both Eastern Conference teams, there's plenty of opportunity for the teams to clash.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! You put in some good work to make it so well-rounded.

    I don't have any preferences on teams or places, but I really think the NHL needs to look West a little, and I mean further than Chicago/Detroit.

    I know certain teams sell more that others, so use one of them, but then mix in another team.


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