Despite expanded format, NHL's outdoor games prove popular
Sidney Crosby is not the only reason the NHL still is playing some games in football and baseballs stadiums.
He is a big one, though.
His snow-globe shootout goal in the first Winter Classic six years ago started the NHL on a path toward its avalanche of six outdoor games this season.
“I didn't know where we could take it,” league COO John Collins said. “I thought we could do some intriguing things after that, though.”
Crosby's Penguins are going for a third game, this time to Chicago's Solider Field, where they will play the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks on Saturday night.
The NHL's brightest star (Crosby), its most accomplished salary-cap era team (Blackhawks), the first outdoor game to be played after the Winter Olympics, when American TV audiences usually fall in love with hockey…
“It's not an accident that these two teams are playing in this game,” Collins said. “The elements for this game are not coincidental.”
NBC Sports broadcasts the Olympics and Stanley Cup Final, and the latter remains the NHL's marquee event, commissioner Gary Bettman said. However, there are seven weeks between the Olympic gold medal game and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Cup Final begins about six weeks later, in early June.
How to capitalize on the “special feel of the Olympics,” Collins said, had eluded the NHL until perhaps this season, when the annual Winter Classic became a Stadium Series of outdoor games in major North American markets.
The Penguins-Blackhawks game is set up to draw a huge audience because it could get that cherished “Olympics boost,” a marketing expert said.
“The timing is perfect,” said Lynn Lashbrook, president of Portland, Ore.-based firm Sports Management Worldwide. “In the TV world, it's all about synergy. We know what the Olympic platform and the outdoor games do for hockey, and that's get the casual fans watching the sport.
“So for two to three weeks, those TV audiences will have seen NBC advertising, often subtly, this outdoor game. That makes it feel like an event. In my lifetime, I don't think the NHL has ever been set up this well to get people watching one particular game.”
The NHL staged its sixth Winter Classic on New Year's Day, nearly setting a new outdoors attendance record by packing 105,491 fans into Michigan Stadium. The game between Detroit and Toronto was watched by the second-most average American households (4.40 million) in league history for a regular-season game — despite one of the participating teams being from Canada.
That Classic generated $15 million for the local economy, according to the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. That would be low compared to reports from previous Classics, for which local revenues ranged between $22 million and $36 million.
NHL officials projected $20 million in league revenue for the Classic.
Collins said revenue from the Classic is “nice” but hardly the primary benefit of the game to the league.
Starting with the first Classic in 2008 between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the event has attracted an average TV audience of at least 3.68 million.
With no shortage of clubs interested in hosting future Classics — partly because the outdoor games have generated support from national and regional sponsors, Collins said — the NHL tried out a series of outdoor games for the first full season after the 2012 lockout.
The host cities targeted were the NHL's biggest U.S. markets: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Local rivalries were the selling point for all but the latter because the league wanted the star-studded Penguins of Crosby, former MVP Evgeni Malkin and U.S. Olympics coach Dan Bylsma in Chicago against the big-buzz Blackhawks.
“That's it right there,” said Eddie Olczyk, a former Penguins broadcaster/coach turned lead NHL analyst for NBC. “Hockey fans in our country have seen the Blackhawks win two of the last four Stanley Cups, and the Penguins have Crosby, who is probably the most well-known player on the planet, and a handful of guys you (saw) on TV during the Olympics.
“It's almost too perfect if it all works out.”
The Penguins hope to become the first franchise to host two Classics and at the very least want to bring another outdoors game to Pittsburgh within the next three years. CEO David Morehouse agreed to Collins' request that the Penguins be the Blackhawks' opponent for the Soldier Field game.
“When the NHL asked us to be a part of this, even though we've done it before, we said we'd do anything we could to help,” Morehouse said. “We believe in outdoor hockey. We've seen it from when we had it here. The outdoor game does a lot to sell fans on hockey, and that's something we're always going to be interested in.”
Critics of the expanded slate of outdoor games contended the special feel of the once-a-year event would dilute the product.
“Not from what I saw firsthand,” said Luc Robitaille, the Los Angeles Kings president of business operation. “I thought maybe that would be the case. I understood why people said that. You don't want the games to become boring to the fans. But we had 50,000 fans at Dodger Stadium watching a hockey game, and it was L.A.'s version of outdoor hockey — and that's when I realized every market can make this their own big event.”
The NHL played two outdoor games on consecutive days the weekend before the Super Bowl on Jan. 25-26, and the games could not have looked more different on TV.
The one at Dodger Stadium was under the lights with a rink surrounded by a Dek hockey and beach volleyball court and with KISS serving as the house band. The one at Yankee Stadium featured blowing snow across two ice rinks, an organist and a game delayed because the Northeast's bright winter sun threatened to damage the ice surface.
The NHL might cut back to four outdoor games, including the Classic in Washington, next season, Collins said. The San Jose Sharks are lobbying to host one at the San Francisco 49ers' new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Collins and other league officials are cautiously optimistic, especially after the perceived success of the Dodger Stadium game, that options for outdoor games in nontraditional markets are plentiful.
Football stadiums in Arlington, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and Glendale, Ariz., are being eyed, as is a soccer pitch in Toronto and baseball stadiums in Miami and along the Allegheny River.
“As long as the fans keep showing they're interested, and I think we're seeing they love it, I think you'll see the outdoor games,” Olczyk said. “You do have to be careful not to kill the golden goose, but it doesn't seem like we're there by a long shot.
“I live in Chicago, and there's a lot of people talking about this one game. You wouldn't get that for a regular-season game, even if it was the Penguins and Blackhawks. It's unbelievable to think where it's gone from that day in Buffalo when Sidney scored that goal. It's become bigger than anybody imagined.”