As 2016 is soon approaching so will the arrival of the 2016 Winter Classic. This year at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts The Boston Bruins will be taking on The Montreal Canadiens in what will be the Bruins second Winter Classic, and yet again a very entertaining and competitive game. As one of, if not the smallest leagues in the big North American four (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) the National Hockey League has always been very focused on driving consumer interaction and attempting to motivate kids in strong market areas as well as weaker ones to play hockey. Right now the league is made up of predominately Canadian born players (51.7%), The United States makes up about 22.4% of the league, and they are followed by an assortment of at least 16 European Nations (including Russia). The percentage of teams within the United States does not mimic that same statistic. Of the 30 Teams in the NHL only 7 are in Canada while the other 23 cover the entire United States. While many northern states have relatively strong, to very strong fan bases, there are many teams in The United States that struggle to fill a building on any given night. Of the 23 U.S based franchises 12 of them are in very small market cities. While most of these teams play in warmer climates (Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina etc.) there are a few teams in the North that have been able to grow their fan bases recently but have been near collapse in previous seasons, i.e The Pittsburgh Penguins. So what can the NHL do to grow appreciation for the league? League wide, each NHL organization has always done amazing community outreach programs involving current and former players. Things like, visiting hospitals on holidays, organizing community street hockey games with players, food and clothing drives, visits to underprivileged kids, and a number of other awesome things within each community. One problem. None of these scream big profits for a league in which profits are not a easily accessible commodity. After ticket and merchandise sales there is not a whole lot of money coming into the league. Last year the total revenue of the NFL was around $11 billion, while the NHL made about $3 billion. While that number in nothing to sneeze at, it speaks to the fact that there is a much smaller audience for hockey in the states than that of other leagues. The NBA, hockeys closest money making rival, made about a billion dollars more last year in total revenue. Though The Stanley Cup final and playoffs are huge for the NHL they do not bring in nearly the same amount of ad dollars that say the Super-Bowl or MLB finals bring in. Last years NFL playoffs made approximately $1.2 billion dollars in ad revenue in 11 games alone. The NHL made $137 million in its playoff series over the course of 93 games. The NBA made close to a billion dollars in 89 games while the MLB playoffs made about $360 million dollars respectively.
So who wants to play outdoors? Presumably everyone. In 2014, the NHL held its 6th edition of the outdoor spectacle, The Winter Classic. A game that reached new heights for attendance and revenue. The NHL earned nearly $20 million in total after costs in the game against original six rivals The Detroit Red wings, and Toronto Maple Leafs. With $10 million of that coming from advertising, its no secret why the NHL places the Classic as one of its highest priorities in marketing. The outdoor games began in 2003 in Edmonton, Alberta as part of the NHL’s Heritage classic. The game pitted two Canadian teams against one another in a so called “cold war on ice.” The game was a success and garnered lost of attention, leading the NHL to have its first outdoor game for U.S based franchises in 2007. Since then there has been a Winter, and Heritage Classic every year. In 2014 the NHL introduced its Stadium Series. A series of outdoor games to be held at various locations, to attract those audiences who were not participating in the Winter or Heritage Classic. The games are marketed as a return to the spirit of hockey, a romantic reminder of where we all found a love for the game; outdoors on a pond or backyard rink.
For some, the idea of one or two outdoor games is a great. The Classics are like nothing seen in any other professional sports league, and their uniqueness is only catapulted by the teams throwback uniforms, and appearances on HBO’s 24/7, and the new series on Epix. But what happens when the league gets to proud of their event. Many fans in more traditional hockey markets have felt that the Stadium Series de-values the allure of the two Classic games. Some say that the increase in outdoor games across the league will result in the classic not receiving the same amount of praise, press, and profits. But is that really the case? On the outside, die hard classic fans may view many outdoors games as becoming too much of a gimmick and a quick cash surge for the league; and that precisely the point. A report from sportsbusinessdaily.com says that a league source claims that in 2014-15 “The four games of the series are expected to bring in more than $50 million in revenue, derived primarily from ticket and sponsorship sales.” On top of that, the league expects to receive an extra
“$10 million-plus of the revenue… from sponsorships and other business, with that sponsorship figure including revenue from companies not on board at the league level as sponsors but paying for a presence at the series games.”
If the NHL wishes to compete with the other major professional sports leagues, it will have to continue to create large scale events in order to receive attention from the average sports television viewer. Although it may seem gimmicky and cheap, the NHL has a duty to uphold with each franchise in its league and to be able to provide them with the most amount of profits. Under current commissioner Gary Bettman the NHL has never been bigger or more lucrative, and opportunities to grow the game like the outdoor series will continue as long as there is a dollar to be made.
How do you feel about outdoor games? Are they still important to you? Or has the novelty worn off?