NHL 2012 Winter Classic: Is the Outdoor Game Concept Overdone?

Alison Myers@AlisonM_110Correspondent IJanuary 1, 2012

NHL 2012 Winter Classic: Is the Outdoor Game Concept Overdone?

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    The fifth annual Winter Classic will take place on Monday, Jan. 2 from Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Penn. The Philadelphia Flyers, appearing in their second outdoor game, will take on the New York Rangers, who are in the Winter Classic for the first time.

    So far, the game has been a big hit with fans, teams and the NHL as a whole. It is one of the top draws on TV in a football-crazed America, and the league makes bank when fans eat up merchandise from the game.

    While this is a positive thing, does the Winter Classic face a risk of being overdone and turning fans off rather than drawing them in?

    Here is a look at some of the key aspects of the NHL's premiere event and how each contributes to the interest in the Winter Classic. At the end of the article, I'll deliver my final opinion and how the NHL can keep this an exciting time of the season.

Participating Teams

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    In the Winter Classic's short history, the Pittsburgh Penguins have participated twice, while the Flyers will be in their second event on Monday. The Washington Capitals, who were in last year's game against the Penguins, have hopes of hosting a Classic in the future.

    The Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres have been the other participants.

    The Winter Classic is about television ratings first and foremost, so naturally, bigger-market teams will get the first crack at hosting or being an opponent in the game.

    However, the requests from fans of seeing smaller-market teams such as the Minnesota Wild, the Colorado Avalanche or even a team in a non-traditional market like the San Jose Sharks are growing. It has yet to be seen whether the NHL will listen.

    Although it is understandable that the NHL and NBC want to make the most money and get the best ratings possible, fans will get bored if the same small group of teams are put in Winter Classics over and over. That could kill the game and take away the novelty.

Ticket Demand

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    As of Saturday morning, StubHub has 937 tickets available for Monday's meeting between the Flyers and the Rangers.

    The prices of these tickets range from $358 to sit in the 400 level in the 16th row (where you'd probably be lucky to see an ant on the ice) to $2,500 to sit in section F of the infield (close, but still not as close as you'd be in an indoor rink).

    Fans still want to go to the game regardless of the price, and some have paid big bucks for the privilege. This is what the NHL loves to see.

    As long as fans are willing to pay for tickets, even if it means nearly taking out a second mortgage, the Winter Classic will be around for a long time to come.

Television Ratings

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    Last year, the Winter Classic between the Penguins and the Capitals had 4.46 million viewers, or a 1.85 ratings share. This was up 22 percent compared to the 2010 event, which put the Flyers against the Boston Bruins.

    It was a welcome increase too, as the 2010 Classic had a 10 percent drop in viewers from 2009, when the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks played at Wrigley Field in Chicago. 

    Despite the drop in 2010, there is still enough interest to draw ratings. A wide range of people watch the outdoor game, from fans first getting interested in hockey to the diehard fans who recognize the novelty of the event and the fact that it's a game that counts for their team.

    As long as the Nielsen numbers still look good, the NHL won't end this anytime soon.

The Jerseys

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    Ever since the Winter Classic started in 2008, one of the biggest points of debate and discussion among fans is the jerseys the players will wear.

    The participating teams have taken to wearing updated models of retro jerseys from their early years. Although, last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins created a jersey they had never worn before, and the Flyers and Rangers took on the same trend this year.

    These jerseys have always sold well, and fans love seeing current players wear the same jersey their team's legends previously wore. There is also a demand to get the Winter Classic patch for the jersey and, of course, to get it customized.

    Some teams have numerous vintage styles to choose from, and fans will always pay to have the latest style in their closet. Even if a team gets to be in more than one Classic, they will never wear the same jersey twice, so it's interesting to see what they come up with.

Everybody's Doing It

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    The photo to the left features the Binghamton Senators and the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League playing in the 2010 Mirabito Outdoor Classic, which was held at the New York State Fairgrounds and drew around 20,000 people.

    Another outdoor game was played in the AHL last year when the Connecticut Whale and the Providence Bruins squared off in the Whale Bowl. The game was held as part of Hockey Weekend Across America and featured an alumni game with legends from the Boston Bruins and the Hartford Whalers.

    In the Western Hockey League, the Kootenay Ice and Spokane Chiefs, as well as the Regina Pats and Calgary Hitmen, each squared off in the elements. The Chiefs-Ice game sold out a venue of around 7,000 fans.

    While it's understandable that smaller hockey leagues want to capitalize on the NHL's success, the Winter Classic no longer feels like a special event. Leagues will have to get creative to avoid running the concept into the ground and keep it fresh for fans.

The Venues

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    The Winter Classic has put hockey in untraditional venues such as NFL stadiums (Heinz Field, Ralph Wilson Stadium), historic MLB fields (Wrigley Field, Fenway Park) and modern baseball stadiums (Citizens Bank Park).

    While NHL arenas are great places to see games for their own reasons, it's nice to shake up tradition and watch a game where you normally wouldn't.

    However, due to the configuration of the outdoor stadiums, there is a lack of being close to the ice like you get in an NHL building. The "closest" seat can feel pretty far away, while those in the upper deck may only get a microscopic view of the action on the ice.

    Even if tickets are still very much in demand, some fans may feel it's not worth the high cost of a ticket just to barely see any of the action. They'd rather be indoors where they'll see everything even if they're in the nosebleeds, and that could be part of the reason why the Winter Classic novelty may fade.

Other Festivities

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    While the actual Winter Classic is a pretty big deal, the host team always has other things going on for the fans.

    One of the biggest draws among fans is the alumni game, where great players from the participating teams face off and relive their playing days. Legends like Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Bernie Parent have all participated in alumni games leading up to the Winter Classic.

    It is great for fans, as they get to bring back up memories of when these players were in their prime and lighting up scoreboards across the NHL. Furthermore, it can introduce younger fans to the guys who played in a time when hockey was different than it is today.

    Other parts of the Winter Classic can include interactive fan exhibits and games, as well as open skating on a separate rink.

    The Classic is more than just one game, and events before the big day can keep fans coming to the venue. If the hosts keep it as a big event, that will ensure it stays popular for years to come.

HBO 24/7

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    For the second year in a row, HBO's series 24/7 has followed NHL teams participating in the Winter Classic. The show takes fans into team locker rooms, features one-on-one interviews and shows what the players enjoy doing off the ice.

    Fans cannot get enough of the series, and players and coaches must work around the distractions of the TV cameras. This provides a whole new challenge as they strive to get better over the course of the season. It's also cool to watch a game and speculate how storylines from a matchup will fit into 24/7.

    The show is a good way to keep fans interested in the Winter Classic. Even if a team gets to be in the outdoor game more than once, they more than likely won't have an identical lineup to their first appearance, and every season is different. 24/7 will never get boring as long as fans keep watching and bringing ratings to HBO, and this can only help grow the Winter Classic and hockey in general.

Verdict: The Winter Classic Is Not Overdone Yet

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    To add to the title of this slide, the Winter Classic is still a popular event for fans and teams alike, but the NHL needs to avoid falling into a trap.

    The league needs to get creative in keeping it a fresh event, whether by not using the same kind of venue several years in a row or challenging themselves by putting new teams in the game as other organizations continue to improve. 

    Teams that get a game twice can always think of a jersey design that will convince fans to pay up as long as it is attractive or pays a nod to their heritage. However, they need to play it safe and not do anything outlandish that will turn off a large segment of the fanbase.

    As long as the same things aren't done repeatedly, fans will never get bored and the Winter Classic will be here to stay.