Outdoor hockey—the game in its purest form—could be exactly what ailing small or non-traditional NHL hockey markets need to get a much-needed boost in attendance.
Until this upcoming season, the games have been mostly reserved for successful teams in good hockey markets. However, with the upcoming season expanding to five games and reports that 2014-15 could be the same, small and non-traditional markets should get a fair shake at hosting games too.
NHL source: expect 4 or 5 stadium games in '14-15: Winter Classic + 3 Stadium Series games + possibly a Heritage Classic. @SBJSBD— Chris Botta (@ChrisBottaNHL) September 20, 2013
The Columbus Blue Jackets are a franchise on the upswing that could greatly benefit from a game at Ohio Stadium.
2013 was a pretty dismal season for the Blue Jackets in terms of attendance. It was one of the worst years for the franchise, and the team has struggled to put seats in the stands since the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
Jeff Bell of Columbus Business First reported that the Jackets were playing to 74.6 percent capacity at the beginning of March—dead last in the league at the time.
At the beginning of the shortened 2013 season, the Blue Jackets had the smallest season ticket base in the history of the franchise at 7,000.
A strong finish may be fresh in our minds, but it's understandable that the Jackets had a very rough year fiscally.
The offseason saw the team trade away its franchise player, Rick Nash, to the New York Rangers without receiving any high-profiles players in return.
Then the NHL All-Star game—scheduled to be hosted in Columbus—was canceled because of the lockout.
To make matters even worse, the team started out poorly, only managing five wins in their first 20 games of the shortened-season.
Great for Business
The second half provided a lot of hope and promise, however.
The Blue Jackets came a tiebreaker away from their second playoff berth in team history. Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy, and the offense scored at least three goals in eight of their final 10 games.
Their second-half performance has been great for business.
Blue Jackets Chief Marketing Officer John Browne told Bell at the end of April that the team had already sold "three times as many season-ticket plans as they had at the time last year" for 2013-14.
By August, the horn at Nationwide Arena rang to celebrate surpassing 8,000 season ticket plans.
With hockey back in the spotlight in Columbus, what could be better than a week of events at Ohio Stadium to promote the team? With ticket sales among the lowest in the NHL last season, Columbus may seem like the last place the NHL would want to have an outdoor game.
To put things in perspective, though, Columbus' population, according to Census.gov, was estimated at 809,798 in 2012. This is drastically more than the population of Pittsburgh and Buffalo—estimated at 259,384 and 306,211 respectively in 2012—and both cities hosted the Winter Classic with great success.
Buffalo was likely aided by its proximity to Toronto and the team it faced, Pittsburgh. A fair argument, but Columbus shares similar advantages.
Ohio's capital is within very reasonable driving distance to other big cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Having the Jackets play a historically successful (and close) team like the Penguins, Red Wings or even the Blackhawks could be a great way to showcase how far the team has come in the last two seasons.
When the team first broke into the league, it was clear the potential be top 10 in the league in average attendance was an attainable goal.
An outdoor game can only quicken the process and make for a more sustainable attendance figure in the future. With stars like Sergei Bobrovsky, Marian Gaborik, Nathan Horton and Jack Johnson, among others, the team is more marketable now than ever before.
The College Factor
The Jackets wouldn't have to be the only draw for fans while the ice was in tact at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes have played in two outdoor hockey games, the most recent against the University of Michigan at Progressive Field in January—the first outdoor hockey game to ever be played in Ohio.
The event put 25,864 fans in the seats. If a college game in Cleveland can bring that many fans, Columbus could blow those numbers out of the water.
"We need to be on a stage like this for our program to grow," Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki told the Associated Press (via ESPN) after the event.
Potential opponents for Ohio State are aplenty in the area, as Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, Miami University and the University of Wisconsin could all help draw a respectable audience as an away team.
It's possible there could even be more than one game, similar to the Hockey City Classic on February 17 in Chicago, which drew a total of 52,051 fans over the course of the two games—Notre Dame vs. Miami (Ohio) University and Michigan vs. Wisconsin.
“I think it's important for college hockey in general,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi told CBS Sports' Chris Peters after the game. “Anytime you can put our sport and our product out on a national stage in venues like today, I think it's important for our sport.”
Peters points out that with more outdoor games, television ratings may begin to come back down to earth. But what it may lose in television ratings, could be made up for in attendance, and more importantly winning over fans.
President of hockey operations John Davidson has been a huge supporter of the idea, for obvious reasons. Davidson even said he'd make a return to color commentary if Columbus lands an outdoor game.
Selecting an Opponent
It's hard to argue that an outdoor game would be anything but a success in Columbus. The make-or-break factor could be the television ratings of games that don't have the same national appeal that games like Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs, Penguins vs. Capitals or Flyers vs. Rangers do.
The realignment and the NHL's continuing effort to make hockey work in non-traditional hockey markets help the Jackets' chances immensely. There are three feasible options:
The NHL schedules a big-time division rival. There are a flurry of new options here. The Rangers, Capitals, Flyers and Penguins are all in the Metropolitan Division with the Jackets. A team that annually does well in TV ratings, ticket sales and merchandise sales could carry the game nationally.
If they want to go outside of the division, the Red Wings and Blackhawks—not all that far from Columbus—could be good options, too.
Another route could have the Blue Jackets playing a small-market team in an attempt to please more than one smaller-hockey market team in one game. The unfortunate thing in this scenario is the closest teams that would fit the bill would be Nashville, Carolina or St. Louis.
The away team likely wouldn't bring the same number of road fans with them as the bigger fan bases could.
Buffalo and Pittsburgh have shown the league that smaller cities can host an outdoor game with tons of success, and now, Columbus should be given the opportunity to show the league that a middle-of-the-road team can use an outdoor game to help turn the corner in attendance figures.
Attendance figures courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.