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How Can the NHL Improve the Winter Classic?

With the NHL playoffs underway, the League office is already planning for next season.  As far as the yearly business of the NHL goes, arguably nothing is bigger than the annual Winter Classic.  According to recent reports, the 4th annual Winter Classic will take place at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA, home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.  It is currently slated to be a showdown between Pittsburgh’s own Penguins and the Washington Capitals.  The obvious marquee match-up the NHL is hoping for is Sidney Crosby versus Alexander Ovechkin.  However, is the League putting all of its marketing efforts into a one basket by depending on Crosby and Ovechkin to bring up ratings?

So far, all of the games have been located in the United States (with the exception of the Heritage Classic in 2003 which is technically not part of the NHL’s Winter Classic movement).  The event, to this point, has always taken place on New Year’s Day.  In the past 3 years, the Buffalo Sabres have hosted the Penguins, the Chicago Blackhawks have hosted the Detroit Red Wings, and, most recently, the Boston Bruins have hosted the Philadelphia Flyers.

However, each year the television ratings have changed drastically from the year before.  Case in point, the most recent Winter Classic between Boston and Philadelphia was down 10.3% from a 2.9 overnight Nielsen rating for the Red Wings-Blackhawks match-up from 2009.  The first year of the event in Buffalo garnered a similar 2.6 rating.  While the 2.6 rating is still the second-highest rating for a regular-season game since 1996, one has to wonder whether the NHL’s fan base is becoming uninterested in the event.  The reason for the decrease in viewership is partly attributed to the lack of marquee players in either team’s lineup.

But the NHL would be pulling out all of its wild cards if it chooses to pit Crosby against Ovechkin to improve the event.  As was shown a few weeks back, the Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry is sure to be a crowd pleaser.  However, neither player is guaranteed to be healthy or active for the game.  Over the last 2 seasons, Ovechkin has missed 13 games due to either injury or suspension.  Similarly, Crosby has missed nearly 40 games due to injury since coming into the league 5 seasons ago.  If either player is missing, the Winter Classic will almost certainly lose valuable television ratings.  Pittsburgh has shown it can sustain television ratings, but how will the rest of the United States accept this match-up?

The obvious reason the NHL is not about to completely revamp the concept is what drives every professional sports league: money.  The Winter Classic is surely the NHL’s prized possession because it is a cash-cow.  Regardless of television ratings, advertisers and fans are shelling out record dollars (by NHL standards at least) to be part of the action.  According to the New York Times, the Bruins-Flyers game generated “$8 million in ticket sales at Fenway Park and $3 million in ad revenue for NBC, triple the total of two years ago.”

Further, according to the same article, the Winter Classic is clearly part of the NHL’s long-term marketing structure.

“Thanks largely to the midseason game, the league says that its sponsorship sales are growing at a 66 percent annual pace and that its merchandise revenue, led by the throwback jerseys inspired by the first Classic, is soaring.”

Despite the increases in advertising revenue, there is no doubt that the NHL still plays second fiddle to a number of other leagues in the United States.  While the Winter Classic is no doubt a spectacle for both avid and casual fans, perhaps the NHL needs to be even more creative to make the event a true blockbuster.  Some questions for the NHL marketing/match-up committees to consider: Why not hold it in a Canadian city?  Why not change up the ever-dwindling All-Star game and make it an outdoor contest?  How long until a non-NHL city, such as Winnipeg or Quebec City, gets a Winter Classic to show that it has sufficient fans to support a full-time team?

It is clear that the Winter Classic is here for the foreseeable future.  However, many questions remain as to how the NHL can truly maximize its use to earn revenue dollars and gain fans.  What changes would you make to the Winter Classic?  Are there any teams/cities that are particularly deserving of the game?

By Mitchell Bragg

Despite the struggles the teams from his hometown face on a yearly basis, Mitch still roots for all teams Buffalo. Outside of SAB Mitch is an attorney in Massachusetts & New York. You can follow him on Twitter via @mitch_bragg.

2 replies on “How Can the NHL Improve the Winter Classic?”

I think that would certainly make for an interesting match-up in most cases. The NHL would have to determine whether it is feasible given conflicts with outdoor stadium scheduling. Also, not all cities where the Stanley Cup teams come from will have the logistics to handle a Winter Classic (read the NHL won’t make as much money this way). I like the idea, but it would require a perfect SC rematch for the NHL to love it.

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