The NHL held their now traditional New Year’s Day matinee outdoor hockey event known as The Winter Classic at the University of Michigan’s football stadium and set an attendance record for an ice hockey game. Over 100,000 fans braved brutally cold temperatures and snow to watch the Detroit Red Wings battle an “Original Six” rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs (www.si.com).
In my view, this game was a statement by the NHL and its loyal fans to dispel the notion throughout the U.S. sports landscape that “nobody cares about hockey”. Then I factored in that the way the rink was oriented in the football stadium, most of those seats for the live event were not even that good from a sight line perspective.
Even the close seats were removed from some distance away from the ice, and most of the seating in the stadium is bleacher style seating with no seat backs. I could not imagine sitting on a metal bleacher in 5 degree Fahrenheit weather to watch a hockey game. That crowd was a testament to the dedication which resides at the core of a hockey fan.
Then, you factor in the snow, and the wind that day piling snow in drifts on the playing surface during the game, and you have a whole new level of intensity at that event for the fans, the players, and the viewers at home. The Winter Classic is an amazing sporting event, and those other elements this year further ratcheted up the interest level in that game.
I began preparation for this article while watching the news of a major snow storm which arrived here in New Jersey yesterday. While watching the snow fall yesterday morning and watching the snow fall in Michigan while I watched the highlights of the game on New Year’s Day, I thought ahead to the outdoor NHL games which will be held later this month in New York City. How would the NHL deal with a storm like this on the day of one of those games?
The “Stadium Series”
This year, instead of having just two outdoor games on the schedule, the NHL expanded the number of hockey games they will play in outdoor venues by introducing the Stadium Series into the league calendar.
This new series features games in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to be held outdoors. The two games in New York will both be played at Yankee Stadium in late January. Both games will feature the New York Rangers and they will take on the New York Islanders and our favorite team here on Pucks & Pitchforks, the New Jersey Devils (www.nhl.com).
The three prevailing themes from these games in both the local New York metro area media and the national media are:
- The cost of the tickets and the slow pace with which they are selling
- The potential for oversaturation of the outdoor NHL game concept
- The contingency plan in the event of an inclement snow event
The cost factor and the slow pace of ticket sales for the games in New York (and in the game in Los Angeles as well) is a significant issue for the league. The fact is that the tickets are too expensive, and in a lot of cases, the cost of the seats are expensive even for poor seating choices to the event.
I know some fans who had a lot of interest in going, and they were loudly critical of the high cost of the tickets. So I looked into it myself out of curiosity, and even on the secondary ticket market websites, the tickets were very expensive for the games at Yankee Stadium. The economy is still not in good shape in this area, and I think the NHL is finding that out, with the cost of living here, it is hard to tack on the extra money to attend this event.
In my view, the NHL needs to do a better job of selling the experience of attending a huge rivalry game at an iconic location such as Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium. The league and the teams involved have not done an adequate job of marketing that aspect of The Stadium Series.
The situation in L.A. is probably similar, a recessed economy, high cost of tickets, and the fact that the interest level for an outdoor game of hockey in Southern California just may have been overestimated.
I am not sure how the NHL plans on addressing the ticket sales issues, I would think they would have to consider discounting or incentivizing them to sell seats to these very important games. The league may have to look at packaging tickets to the outdoor games with tickets to other regular season games for the teams involved.
The other factor to be considered here is the potential oversaturation of the outdoor hockey game concept. The NHL has to realize that The Winter Classic and the annual outdoor game in a Canadian market, The Heritage Classic, were annual events, and they are stand-alone games. That is the key to their success with those two outdoor events.
Now, with the introduction of additional outdoor games, I would think that is a factor in some of the soft demand for tickets. These Stadium Series games may end up being looked at by the avid hockey fan as too expensive and taking the concept too far.
The NHL executives, the owners, and the players association will have to evaluate the total attendance, TV ratings, and reception of these additional outdoor games to determine their viability in subsequent seasons.
However, I understand the situation with the scheduling of the two games at Yankee Stadium in late January. The National Football League is holding the Super Bowl this year in New Jersey at MetLife Stadium on the first Sunday of February.
The NHL saw a unique opportunity to market hockey in New York during the week leading up to the Super Bowl game here with all of the sports media from around the world staying in the New York area at that point. I thought the scheduling from the NHL of the New York games was a stroke of very smart marketing to get maximum marketing exposure for their sport using big outdoor hockey games.
The games at Yankee Stadium could have some problems if we get a storm similar to the one we are dealing with currently on the night before or the morning of the event. I am sure that the NHL and the stadium will have contingency plans in order to delay or reschedule the game if needed, but that could cause some issues for fans travelling in from a long distance to attend the event and leave the next day.
The blowing and drifting snow that hit Michigan during the game on New Year’s Day, would be a problem in the games in New York too. It would cause a lot of delays to clear the playing surface, which could push the game further into the later afternoon hours where it could get much colder outside for the fans.
In the end, the fans in Michigan certainly set the bar for the other outdoor games this year. If the NHL succeeded in putting together an exciting game in those conditions, I think they should have great optimism that they can do so in the outdoor games which remain on the schedule this season.
I know as a Devils fan I just want our team to beat the Rangers every time we face them regardless of the venue, whether it is Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, or the Prudential Center. That type of intensity is what hockey is all about.