The 2012 Winter Classic was played at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
The National Hockey League has played one outdoor hockey game per year since its first Winter Classic in 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, NY. In 2014, however, the NHL will play six outdoor games in five venues.
The Canadian sports network TSN reported the league's plan will include a Los Angeles Kings vs. Anaheim Ducks game at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25, two games at Yankee Stadium which will include all the New York Area teams, a March 2 matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field and an Ottawa Senators vs. Vancouver Canucks game at B.C. Place in Vancouver.
These games come in addition to the league's gem event, the 2014 Winter Classic. The Winter Classic is set to be played on New Year's Day at The Big House on the campus of the University of Michigan.
While the Winter Classic has brought some of the NHL's highest TV ratings, and has sold out stadiums, the plan to put on five more games has brought with it concern that the magic of the event will become watered down.
“In my opinion, the six outdoor games will create tremendous buzz and excitement in the local markets,” said Christopher Barnhill, an asstistant professor at the Rawlings Sport Business Management Program at Maryville University in St. Louis. “On the other hand, the NHL has a tremendous brand in the Winter Classic. Holding six outdoor games does reduce the novelty of the Winter Classic.”
The NHL has the same worry. At a press conference to announce the Winter Classic, NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins said, “No one would be more concerned about not screwing up a good thing than we would be.”
This season's Winter Classic was canceled due to the NHL lockout. The last outdoor event, which was held at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, drew 46,967 fans. Nearly four million viewers watched the event on TV. The 2011 Winter Classic was the highest rated outdoor game with 4.74 million viewers.
“This is a bit of a balancing act and somewhat of a gamble for the NHL,” Southern Illinois Sports Administration Professor and former NHL lawyer Jeff Levine said. “The question becomes whether the league will continue to retain the marquee value of its outdoor games, which of course translates to high ticket sales, sponsors, activation, etc, or whether the whole novelty will be lost with so many games staged in close time proximity.”
The success of NHL outdoor games has carried over to hockey's top minor league, the American Hockey League. The AHL played its first Outdoor Classic in 2010 in Syracuse, NY, in front of 21,508 fans at the New York State Fairgrounds.
The AHL will play two outdoor games in 2014, one in conjunction with the Winter Classic and the other at Frontier Field in Rochester, NY.
“You see the impact it can have and see the number of people it can draw,” said AHL VP of Marketing and Business Development Chris Nikolis. “And how much fun people have when they are there and it's great for your corporate partners and everyone tied to the city. It's a logistical challenge to pull everything together, but all five we've done so far have been a great success.”
In 2011, the AHL's game at Citizens Bank Park that followed the Winter Classic sold out, setting a league record for a single game with over 45,000 attending.
“There's no question those games provide added opportunity for our teams in those cities,” Nikolis said. “We're able to put our best foot forward and receive some additional spotlight when those games are happening.”
Nikolis said the AHL has received a great deal of interest from teams in getting involved with an outdoor game. The only question is whether the fan interest will remain as high with more outdoor games being played.
“If leagues can continue to grow revenues from this new source by staging multiple outdoor games that continue to draw reasonably well, then I imagine the league is willing to dilute the value of this signature event,” Levine said.
Interviewed for this story: Chris Nikolis, (413) 781-2030; Christopher Barnhill, (314)- 529-9300; Jeff Levine, (248) 939-7864