Last night, TSN’s Darren Dreger broke the news that the NHL was planning to stage six outdoor games next year, including two involving the Rangers at Yankee Stadium in the week leading up to the MetLife Stadium Super Bowl. The Blueshirts would play the Devils in the Bronx on January 26 and the Islanders three days later on January 29. Those games will be a lot of fun: 50,000 hockey fans, out in the elements at the home of the Yankees, cheering on rival teams, presumably on national television. But is the dramatic increase in outdoor games — from one and at most two per season to six in 2014 — a wise strategy for the NHL?
Before answering that, it helps to understand what the NHL’s strategy has been over the past several years, and for that you need to know a bit about John Collins, who may be the best thing to happen to the post-lockout NHL. (We're referring to the season-canceling 2004–05 lockout here. We hate that we have to make that distinction.) Collins is the NHL’s chief operations officer, and the driving force behind the successful Winter Classic games, which pit two NHL teams against each other in an outdoor venue on or near New Year’s Day. The Winter Classic has evolved into the crown jewel of the league’s regular season: It’s a hit for broadcasters, and it’s the sort of thing that can get casual fans (and even non-hockey fans) to pay attention to the sport. Yes, it's a reminder of hockey's outdoor roots, but more important for the NHL, it's an opportunity to print money.
The Winter Classic, though, is just the most high profile part of Collins’s overall plan, which involves a number of so-called “tentpole” events, roughly one a month, scattered throughout the league’s calendar. These events create varying levels of buzz, from the mostly overlooked Black Friday Thanksgiving Showdown to the All-Star Game and the fun All-Star Fantasy Draft (an idea which, mark our words, the NBA will eventually steal).
And so the addition of new outdoor games next season — one each in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Vancouver, along with the two in New York and the already-scheduled Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium — will give the league a whole bunch of new events to hype, and give fans in various cities something to look forward to. But to do this, it means going back to the outdoor-game well, and going back often. Obviously, there’s only so much innovation a league can try in the regular season, if it’s hoping to create must-see events. And playing games in baseball or football stadiums has proven to be a way of attracting eyeballs. But the more games the league adds — as much fun as each one will be individually — the more it diminishes the concept in the long run. Each game, even this year, becomes a little less special, and a few years down the line, the league runs the risk of wearing out the concept of outdoor hockey.
It’s worth noting that the brilliance of the Winter Classic isn’t simply a result of playing the game outside. The NHL, in just a few years, has built it into something that lasts weeks, beginning with HBO’s excellent 24/7 series and including everything from alumni games to open skates for the local community. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the days and weeks leading up to the game, and between the specially designed jerseys the teams wear to the music acts the league books to perform at the game — the Roots performed at the one in Philly — the Winter Classic has become more than a regular season game. It’s a full-fledged spectacle, and there’s nothing else like it on the NHL calendar (save for the occasional Heritage Classic game, which is played in Canada and not hyped nearly as much, at least in the U.S.).
That said, the reason they can turn the game into a spectacle — the reason they can sell special jerseys and follow the teams for a month on HBO — is because it's a hockey game being played outdoors, and that's a cool, rare thing. With five other outdoor games scheduled next year, the Winter Classic becomes a little less unique. And so the NHL is betting that a handful of lesser outdoor games, collectively, are better than one perfect one.
The increase in outdoor games wasn't unexpected. This is Collins talking earlier this month about potentially adding outdoor games:
"We've started to look at how do we get to markets where the event will be a phenomenal experience, but may not be the big media market that would carry a Jan. 1 television window," Collins told USA TODAY Sports. "We've also looked at what's the opportunity to get back to (venues) that have been phenomenal sooner than once every 15 years if we are only going to do one game a year."
So if next year's so-called stadium series is the new normal, it would allow the NHL to play outdoors in three (or maybe even more than three) American markets each season, on top of the Winter Classic. And one doesn't need to read much into that quote to see where this is headed: The Winter Classic will become something that rotates among the handful of media markets the NHL cares about — the Bostons and the Philadelphias and the Chicagos — but those other games will be up for grabs. A city like Columbus — despite having a team on the rise and a perfect venue for an outdoor game — may not get to host the league's marquee regular-season event, but the NHL can throw them one of the other outdoor games.
It also, as Collins says, allows the league to return to venues like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, even if that means diminishing returns each time. There's no doubt that next year, all six of those games will individually be lots of fun. The ones at Yankee Stadium, especially, will be a blast. But there's a fine line between a special event and a gimmick that can become played out, and the NHL has not yet been in any danger of crossing it with the Winter Classic, an event that's been widely hailed as a smart innovation. But now it's in danger of crossing that line — of giving the impression that the league's only way of attracting attention during the regular season is by playing more and more games outdoors.
Collins and the NHL surely know all of this. And maybe it's part of their plan: Maybe they care less about trying to get national attention on New Year's Day, and more about turning outdoor games into fun, local happenings that take place in a given city every few years. The January 1 games will still get the full Winter Classic treatment, and, the league hopes, stand out among the other games. But rather than creating leaguewide "tentpole events" for later in the season, they're creating a bunch of regional ones. The novelty of a seeing hockey played outdoors may have worn off by the time the Rangers play their games at Yankee Stadium next year, but those will still be the most anticipated games of the year for the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils. And while Soldier Field isn't as sexy a venue as Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium, it'll still be a huge deal for people in Chicago and Pittsburgh, whose Penguins will be participating.
Maybe Collins even knows that the Winter Classic can't keep growing indefinitely. There are only so many worthy events you can tack on to the actual game, and there are only so many stadiums that are a draw in and of themselves. (They've already started to run out: Michigan Stadium, for instance, fits that criteria, but Citizens Bank Park, the site of the 2012 game, does not.) By not locking themselves into a January 1 or 2 date, it also opens up a few new venues: Yankee Stadium — currently unavailable around New Year's because of the Pinstripe Bowl — can now host games. Same goes for the Rose Bowl, if the league wanted to go there at some point. And NFL stadiums in general would be easier to book later in the winter, because they wouldn't require the league to work around the NFL schedule.
These new outdoor games will likely lack the bells and whistles of the Winter Classic, and over time, the Winter Classic won't be quite as interesting to a national audience as it is right now. But maybe, as the NHL revises its strategy to attract eyeballs, that's all okay. They're certainly betting that it is.