Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Head west, young Bettman - time to expand the Winter Classic horizons

Monday was the 5th annual Winter Classic, which has become the premiere showcase for attracting new fans to the NHL. It couldn't have turned out a better day for it weather-wise: excellent weather for an outside game, although a bit windy. A dusting of snow late in the game was the icing of perfection on the event; they couldn't have scripted it better.

Last year, HBO partnered with the NHL to bring an in-depth, all-access, behind-the-scenes look at the NHL. Their 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic was greatly anticipated by puckheads. It gave a look inside the rarest of environs explored on pro sports channels: hockey locker rooms. Make no mistake, the NHL picked its participants for the inaugural pairing of 24/7 and the Winter Classic with great care: the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, two extremely high-profile teams headlined by two of the superstars of the league, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. It was a hockey marketer's dream come true.

But a funny thing happened on the road to the Winter Classic. HBO certainly gave a look into both Crosby and Ovechkin, but the "breakout" stars of the first season of the NHL's 24/7 turned out to be people like coach Bruce Boudreau; Brooks Laich; Mike Green; and goalie Marc-André Fleury. 24/7 uncovered exactly what fans had known for years: every guy on the team has an interesting personality; every guy on the team can attract fans. 

Obviously, the league can't market every single player. They've got to pick a handful of top players and sell them as the faces of the franchises. That generally means the highest-profile/leading scorers - so for the past five years, that's meant Crosby and Ovechkin. But what do you do when your number one player misses a year of play due to a concussion suffered in that major showcase you've been promoting? What about when the other player starts off the next season struggling as much as the team he captains?

Unfortunately, the way the sport has grown, and the way layout of teams happen to fall across the U.S. and Canada, this means that the thickest cluster of NHL teams stretches across a small section of the country, defined on a map by a triangle stretching between Montréal, Chicago, and Washington. That area encompasses roughly half the league, while the rest of the league is sprawled across the rest of the continent. Add in the factor that all the Eastern Conference teams and two Western Conference teams fall into the Eastern time zone, and that means that the majority of hockey media is in the East, too.

As a result - and not surprisingly - the NHL caters to that half of the market. Major events like the Winter Classic are timed for prime viewing hours in the east, so that it can draw as many eyes as possible, and have to date featured mostly Eastern Conference teams.

That's perfect marketing sense on paper, of course, but Western Conference fans are starting to get pretty annoyed at feeling left out. Detroit and Chicago have been featured together in 2009, but that was before the Blackhawks became the powerhouse they are today, and before the Winter Classic - and now 24/7 - really took off for the NHL.

Last year, as the Stanley Cup field narrowed, the press seemed to fret on the behalf of the league and fans alike. If a Canadian team made it into the Final, who would want to watch in the U.S.? Other than Boston fans, obviously? Well, not surprisingly, with a Canadian team in the Final, viewership north of the border boomed considerably in 2011 over 2010 (98% greater, in fact). But what about American viewership?

In the U.S., the BOS Bruins - VAN Canucks Final "attracted the largest audience across all platforms in the history of the sport", including the most-watched NHL game in the U.S. in 38 years - game 7, which drew 8.54 million viewers.

Clearly, the fact that one of the teams was Canadian didn't stop U.S. viewers from tuning in. And they tuned in with record numbers. It may have even helped, considering that a U.S. vs. Canada Final brought out the kind of fervor usually reserved for the Olympics. The teams built the start of a new rivalry between them - although they previously have met just once or twice a year, this was a Stanley Cup showdown of epic proportions, with some 80 years of Cup drought shared between them, and a fierce 7-game series.

So why so much resistance to getting Canadian teams involved in the Winter Classic?

The Heritage Classic was the original outdoor game for the NHL, first held several years ago and then again last February in Calgary. Despite the fact it featured two Canadian teams, it drew in strong U.S. viewership, more likely drawn by the novelty of an outdoor game rather than the participants.

This summer, Gary Bettman spoke frankly at the Wild Fan Fest, held the same weekend as the NHL Draft. He discussed the Winter Classic and 24/7, stating that the match ups have to be "compelling". What it all translates down to, of course, is revenue; what teams do people tune in to watch, and how many people are doing so? He said that Minnesota would "eventually" get an outdoor game, but he wouldn't give ballpark guesses as to when.

There can be little doubt that 24/7 has done amazing things to spike interest in the Winter Classic, no matter who plays. Whether or not hockey fans liked either team or any of the players didn't matter; diehards and new fans alike tuned in to watch 24/7. The show even helped change people's opinions on players or teams.

Most importantly, the show got people emotionally engaged with teams they wouldn't normally root for. After each episode airs, social networks like Twitter light up with discussion of the game. Who are the latest standouts? What do fans think of each coach's style?

The fans aren't even alone in watching 24/7 - not surprisingly, the players are tuning in to watch, too. Players who are involved with the current Winter Classic weigh in on Twitter and respond to fans. It is marvelous and engaging television. Bettman and the NHL keeps repeating that it's not merely an exhibition game and that there are "two points at stake". Two points, of course, can make or break a team's chances to make the playoffs, four months away.

But the Winter Classic is a way to showcase the game, its history, and some of its finest rivalries. And guess what - not every excellent rivalry is played in the Eastern time zone.

The NHL wants to keep expanding into "non-traditional" markets, but how can they do that if they're going to act like the existing non-traditional markets aren't as important and viable as the Eastern cash cows of the league?

The fact is, so long as the game remains a novelty - held once a year, with new teams getting into the WC mix - then it will remain fresh for the fans and it will draw interest. If it is watered down by too many outdoor games held each year, or if the same teams keep showing up every 2-3 years, then that's boring. Sorry, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, you've had your turns - twice each in the first five years. Time to let other teams get some attention. There's 30 teams in this league.

Here's who has played in the Winter Classic so far:

2008 - Buffalo Sabres; Pittsburgh Penguins - at Buffalo/Ralph Wilson Stadium
2009 - Chicago Blackhawks; Detroit Red Wings - at Chicago/Wrigley Field
2010 - Boston Bruins; Philadelphia Flyers - at Boston/Fenway Park
2011 - Pittsburgh Penguins; Washington Capitals - at Pittsburgh/Heinz Field
2012 - Philadelphia Flyers; New York Rangers - at Philadelphia/Citizens Bank Park

As Puck Daddy reported today, the initial overnight ratings for the 2012 game were the worst of any of the Winter Classic games; later figures put the TV viewership at an average 3.74 million, which made it 4th-best (out of 5).

Yes, there's some obvious culprits. The game ended up being scheduled on Monday, January 2nd at 3pm. Sure, the schedule might have worked against the game's ratings. Maybe the date/timing (late on a Monday afternoon) had a lot to do with the downswing in viewers.
Then again, maybe not enough people were compelled by the match-up. Maybe the viewers of 24/7 didn't feel compelled enough about the "Amtrak rivalry" that New York and Philadelphia have; that there wasn't enough spark or personality coming out of the locker rooms on either side. The biggest "star" of 24/7 was in fact Ilya Bryzgalov, who, due to poor play in games leading up to the Classic, got benched in favor of sophomore goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. It could be that people who would have tuned in to the game to watch "Bryz" play, lost interest in the game at that point.

Maybe people just weren't as interested in these two teams. Philadelphia has already been featured in the Classic just two years ago, and has been a staple in the playoffs for the past three seasons.

Maybe hockey fans want something more.

Looking West - and to the Great White North

This week in Sports Illustrated, Michael Farber disparaged the Winter Classic, saying that the format is contrived and claiming that nobody grows up on outdoor rinks anymore; that today's players just know artificial rinks.

He's incorrect, of course. Many current NHL player will speak fondly of time spent outdoors playing pick-up shinny, be it on frozen ponds or backyard rinks built by dad or just a fortuitous sheet of ice left in the park after a wet winter storm. Naturally, this kind of experience favors those markets who have the weather for it - Canada, New England, the Midwest, Colorado. Then there's kids who grew up with roller blades on their feet year-round, and who only knew man-made ice - those kids learning hockey in Florida and Tennessee and California and yes, even Phoenix. Wait - hasn't the NHL been trying to expand and fortify their hold upon these warm-weather "nontraditional" markets?

2012 Winter Classic - photo courtesy Christopher Najewicz/Flickr
For the players, it gives a unique experience, one most of them probably haven't enjoyed since they were kids - year after year, as the players leave the ice, they rave about the experience they had. Yes, the Classic might be contrived. But at its heart, it speaks to that little kid on the ice inside all of us. You pick sides; you root for your team; you enjoy the game; you have a memorable day (or night) out. We all want to get back to that, even if it's only for a day and we're clutching $8 beers in our frozen fingers while we do so.

If, as mentioned earlier, the Heritage Classic proved that it could draw U.S. viewers - and remember, that was a pair of Canadian teams - and if the 2011 Stanley Cup proved that people will watch a Stanley Cup run even if Canadians are in it - again, why so much resistance to a Canadian participant in the Winter Classic?

The NHL talks about revenue, so let's discuss that. The View From 111 blog wrote a two-part article titled Does the NHL's business model work? (part 1 | part 2) (Feel free to review the NHL's CBA, also.) In short, NHL's revenue stream is a complex entity, driven by two currency rates (U.S. and Canadian), revenue sharing, and perhaps most importantly, broadcast revenues. Revenues from playoff games and regular season games get distributed differently; let's just say that it's good for the financial health of the league (if not fans' sanity) for playoff rounds to each go as long as possible. At the end of the day, Gary Bettman - and everybody else - will say: planning the Winter Classic is about the revenue.

But the Winter Classic, after five years, has reached a point where it is practically a license for the NHL to print money. Each team creates a new winter jersey - the designs for which are eagerly anticipated by the fans - and they fly off the shelves in great haste once they are introduced. Add in all the other WC-related merchandise, ticket sales (with all the WC venues holding at least twice the capacity of the largest NHL arena), broadcast rights... well, it adds up. And the NHL wants healthy revenues, so it's important to have showcase teams and established rivalries, which give two strong built-in marketing points. The Winter Classic has established itself as the regular-season game that the most fans will tune in to watch; give the fans a good show.

So who would be worth watching?

Fans in the Western Conference are getting pretty cranky that they're "being ignored" in the Classic. Canadian fans are feeling flat-out snubbed, but so long as the finances that count are being counted in U.S. dollars, the Winter Classic will remain on American soil.

Gary Bettman might not care so much about the "Original Six" label, but fans still do. Four of the "O6" have made it into the Winter Classic, one time each. The remaining two are Toronto and Montréal: two of the largest, most fervent, high-spending teams in the league. Why wouldn't you want to have one of these teams in the Winter Classic? Imagine the merchandise sales! 

At least three major U.S.- Canadian rivalries jump to mind with little effort:
  • Detroit-Toronto (just picture it at the Big House!)
  • Chicago-Vancouver (Soldier Field this time!)
  • Montréal-Boston (perhaps Gillette Stadium, as Fenway's been done?)
All are huge rivalries between major, well-known hockey markets that not only have strong local fan bases, but fans spread across both countries - pitting together large-market U.S. teams with the strongest of the Canadian teams. Imagine Detroit hosting Toronto at The Big House, or the Blackhawks welcoming the Canucks to Soldier Field. (Bettman seems to favor baseball stadiums, but there's 30,000+ more seats to be sold at football venues - let's not hesitate to point that important number out.)

Even better than that, imagine the look at hockey from the Canadian point of view, and how it would compare and contrast to the American one, as seen through the 24/7 lens. Hockey is "Canada's game". Instead of simply paying lip service to the Canadian part of the audience/fan base by playing "O Canada" at the Winter Classics, bring in one of their teams. It'd be fascinating, compelling television. Maybe HBO would even be willing to do an extra episode of 24/7 (or a stand-alone 1-hour show) to talk strictly about the history of hockey and the Stanley Cup.

Hold these CAN-US games at a U.S. venue. If you haven't been to a game where a Canadian team is playing an American one in an American venue lately, you clearly have missed how well Canadian fans travel. A strong Canadian dollar has meant hordes of Canadian fans have faithfully and regularly crossed the border, especially as it is getting so expensive to see hockey at home - many Canadian arenas charge nearly twice as much as their U.S. counterparts to see games.

Four years ago, the then-struggling Blackhawks worried about selling out Wrigley Field for the Classic. The team ended up promising that anybody who invested in season tickets would be able to buy tickets for the Classic. That not only boosted STH sales, but meant that very few tickets ended up available for purchase on the open market (without resorting to resale sites). The Blackhawks needn't have worried, however - the novelty of this outdoor game was so big that demand for tickets was huge. They could have easily sold out Soldier Field - and this was before the Classic became as popular as it is now. The heightened focus on the Blackhawks - not to mention the growing strength and skill of the team - help propel Chicago's interest strongly back towards hockey.

Selling out the stadium won't be a problem, no matter who plays who. If local fans can't manage it, traveling fans will buy the rest. It gives a boost to the local economy. The Winter Classic is a perk, a benefit, of doing well within the league; so it needs to be spread around.

Site of the 2013 Winter Classic? The Big House at U. of Michigan - photo courtesy of Cariberry/Flickr
According to numerous sources, the 2013 game happening at Detroit is "the worst-kept secret at the 2012 Classic". It would make perfect sense: the chance to break the world record for attendance at a hockey game by holding it at the Big House (U. of Michigan) would be far, far too tempting, for a start. No doubt UM would be willing to help cut the league a break on the stadium costs thanks to the huge amount of publicity the school would be receiving.

Who should be Detroit's opponent, though? As tempting as it would be to have a rematch vs. Chicago, the league should go in one of two directions: Red Wings vs. Toronto, which would draw huge viewership from both sides of the border, and has long been one of the Red Wings' best rivals; or Red Wings vs. San Jose Sharks, a rivalry which has been cultivated over the years but especially of late via the playoffs. The Sharks are a popular team; their tickets sell well at home, and it would appeal strongly to all the "sunbelt" fans, who are feeling left out due to the slim likelihood of their own teams getting to host an outdoor game.

Looking ahead beyond 2013, however, there are so many possibilities for great locations and match-ups. Chicago vs. Vancouver, either hosted at Soldier Field or in/near Vancouver if feasible, would be spectacular - especially while the two teams are still vibrant rivals. The Dallas Stars vs. the Minnesota Wild would be another natural match. Imagine the Colorado Avalanche hosting a team at a venue like the University of Colorado at Boulder's gorgeous and historic Folsom Field, with the dramatic backsplash of the Flatirons and Rockies. New York City will eventually want to host a game; could the idea of a Winter Classic double-header be feasible? (Think of the double revenue streams, Gary!)

Imagine a Winter Classic here at Folsom Field - photo use courtesy of Timmer82 on Flickr

At the end of the day, there's a lot of reasons to look West or North for ways to keep the Winter Classic fresh. The addition of 24/7 was brilliant, and each season will be truly unique. Now it is time to show that hockey truly "is for everyone", and get Western and Canadian teams in on the action.


  1. Aaaaaamen. If anything, I think Bettman needs to understand that he might *lose* viewership if he continues to keep throwing the same teams/locations at people. I had the game on this year, but I didn't pay close attention. My attitude was "Oh, East Coast. Again. *YAWN*" I would gladly watch a game involving a Canadian team, especially one of the O6. Can you imagine the spectacle that would be were it hosted in Canada? It would be crazy! And while sunbelt/southern teams obviously would have a problem hosting a WC, they could certainly travel to a Northern opponent. Your idea of Colorado sounds gorgeous.

  2. Dallas going to Minnesota would be a great game to show off the passion for hockey in the state -- and pull in Southern and Western viewers as well.


Thanks for your viewpoint!

Please note that anonymous comments are moderated in order to prevent spam.