Continued success of NHL outdoor games fuels evolution to include more teams, bigger venues

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HAMILTON, Ont. — The weather cooperated.

Swirling winds and light snow created a snow globe effect for fans in the building, as well as picturesque images for viewers on Sportsnet and TNT. More importantly, the match schedule has not been changed.

The weather has been the NHL’s biggest adversary when it comes to outdoor games. Delays caused by sun glare or rain have created horror stories of outdoor games, where afternoon games have been moved to late evening and an outdoor game has become an indoor game because the roof had to be closed.

“That’s the one thing we can’t control,” said NHL Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer. “It’s the thing where you have to hope and pray for the best.”

While many fans in attendance left the Heritage Classic disappointed with the outcome – blame the Toronto Maple Leafs defense and goalie – overall it was another successful away game for the league, capping a return to sold out and crowded with fans. games which, from a commercial point of view, constitute the most important events outside of the playoffs.

This year’s Winter Classic was the coldest game in NHL history, minus 5.7 degrees Fahrenheit on the opening faceoff, and the first outdoor contest under the new contract. nationally televised with Turner. It set cold records and helped reset potential Winter Classic viewership expectations after setting up with NBC.

It was the most-watched NHL regular season game of all time on cable in the United States with 1.4 million viewers, but it was also the least-watched Winter Classic in history. of the event. This was an inherent risk in moving the game from broadcast to cable. The NHL knew raw viewership numbers would plummet, but the numbers were also hit by self-sabotage on the part of the hockey world.

Unlike previous editions of the Winter Classic, the 2022 version was moved from noon to evening, and other NHL games were played at the same time. According to the league people, this diluted the event from a television perspective and reduced the marquee nature of the event. Multiple sources said they hope that in 2023, when the game is hosted at Fenway Park, the rest of the league will have a New Year’s holiday.

Stadium Series games have always been second only to the Winter Classic, but the game in Nashville last month exceeded expectations with an average of 634,000 viewers, the third most-watched game on TNT this season after the Winter Classic and the opening night between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals.

Viewer numbers for the game in Hamilton will be available later this week, likely on Tuesday, according to a TNT spokesperson.

All in all, it’s time to redefine and better understand the importance of outdoor games.

Yes, the novelty has faded. An outdoor hockey game is no longer a rarity, but a regular occurrence every season. The combined 8.2 million viewers between the United States and Canada for the 2014 Winter Classic will set the bar high, likely in perpetuity. Even with that reality, it’s important to recognize that outdoor games work, and from a league business perspective, it makes more sense to have more than one per season.

Since the 2003 Heritage Classic, every outdoor NHL game with in-person attendance has sold out. These games typically bring in about $5 million in profits for the NHL, which provides a nice boost to hockey-related revenue, and at a time when maximizing HRR is paramount to offset losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. 19, hosting multiple games is a no-brainer financially. for the league.

And even though domestic appetite has waned, the appetite and market advantage for both teams in the away game has not diminished.

Teams look to outdoor games as a badge of honor and a seal of approval. Los Angeles Kings president Luc Robitaille said it’s proof a franchise is relevant across the league spectrum.

“They continue to be special and they should be earned in most cases,” Robitaille said. “We staged our game (at Dodgers Stadium in 2014) and that was another brand that we really counted on in the league. Our team was good, we should be at this stage, right now we are rebuilding and until we get back to this type of level, I wouldn’t even ask to be in an outdoor game.

From a financial point of view, teams do not earn money directly from an away game. The league purchases a home date away from the team and hosts it as a league event. All direct revenue from the game itself goes to the league-wide HRR. That’s why the Sabers were the home team in Hamilton – it made more sense for the league from HRR’s perspective to buy a home game from the Buffalos than from Toronto.

It is then up to the teams to make the most of the residual financial impact, effectively trying to turn a one-off event into a one-season story that can be sold.

Teams typically see an increase in season ticket sales around an outdoor game, a combination of season ticket holders receiving priority access to the event, and general excitement within the market around an event major. The Carolina Hurricanes have already seen that happen since they were granted an outdoor game, which was delayed two seasons by COVID-19 and will be played next season at Carter-Finley Stadium.

While the number of outdoor games featuring the Chicago Blackhawks became a joke on social media, a person familiar with Blackhawks ticketing operations said the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field was a big driver in launching a sold-out streak that spanned over 13 seasons.

There is usually no room for local sponsors at a league-wide event, but teams can use away games as a selling point when building their own corporate sponsorship and local. Several team executives have pointed out that having an outdoor game means greater visibility league-wide, and that some of the best sponsorship years come when an outdoor game is on the schedule.

Having another jersey for sale certainly helps too, but as Robitaille pointed out, it’s more of a league benefit than the individual team, as merchandise sales are split as an HRR element in most cases.

Outdoor game hosts typically see a greater upside than on-road teams, but on-road teams can also capitalize on the publicity of a league-wide event. And a good performance by the road team, especially in terms of attendance, can be used to prove that they deserve to be the host.

The Predators fans who helped fill the Cotton Bowl for the 2020 Winter Classic have helped secure outdoor play this season, and the same is now on the cards for the Lightning, who traveled well to Nashville and now have a best chance of securing outdoor play if weather conditions present themselves. can be overcome.

The NHL has the final decision on road team selection, but the event begins with a conversation between the league, the hosts and now Turner Sports, as the outdoor game broadcaster.

Some hosts care more about the opponent than others. The Hurricanes, for example, didn’t have much preference and relied on the league and network TV, while others were more particular about wanting a certain team or rival.

For the 2022 Winter Classic, the Wild had a list of four teams they wanted to play – the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets – before St. Louis not be chosen as an adversary. For the 2020 Winter Classic, the New York Rangers and Vegas Golden Knights were also heavily considered opponents by the Stars, before the league picked Nashville as their opponent.

From a TV perspective, it’s important to find the match that will lead to the highest rating. For the Hurricanes’ outdoor play, the Predators and Lightning were also considered, but the Capitals best fit TNT’s plans and line up well with strong projection to protect the outdoor play streak at ticket offices closed.

Like it or not, the original six teams and other so-called traditional hockey markets still produce the most viewers and have the biggest fanbases in the league.

That being said, the league has slowly developed a checklist for getting every team into an outdoor event, either as hosts or visitors. With Carolina hosting next season, there are only four teams left that have yet to play in an outdoor game – the Arizona Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and Kraken. Seattle.

Arizona has the longest chance of being included in an outdoor event. The franchise’s league-wide relevance in recent years has only been tied to negative factors, and it’s hard to convince anyone that a team playing in a college hockey arena over the next three seasons would be able to contribute to a sold-out outdoor crowd as a visitor.

The Panthers’ recent on-ice success makes that a more realistic possibility, especially if the league can find a way to stick the landing with an as-is game against the Lightning.

Seattle is playing its first season, so it makes sense the expansion club haven’t played away yet, but it’s more a matter of when, not if, for the Kraken when it comes to to be in one of those events, probably against the Vancouver Canucks.

The most interesting case is Columbus, which geographically would make sense for an outdoor game and has made several hosting offers in the past. The NHL would like to host an outdoor game at Ohio Stadium, likely a Stadium Series event, but at this point the stadium is not winterized to host events past November.

The Blue Jackets and the league are in talks with Ohio State about this, and the University would be open to hosting an NHL event, but until that hurdle is cleared – the NHL is not not interested in paying to winterize the stadium at Ohio State – the Blue Jackets will wait until they are outside in the cold.

(Photo: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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