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John Collins on NHL outdoor games, overdoing rivalries and making hockey $4 billion business

Greg Wyshynski
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NEW YORK – John Collins has performed an admirable balancing act for the NHL since joining it in 2006, both honoring the traditions of hockey while exploiting them as much as possible for profit.

Like recognizing hockey’s roots on frozen ponds, but playing outdoor games in baseball stadiums in front of tens of thousands. Like understanding the importance of rivalries in the NHL, and then working with NBC to create a “Hockey Night in America”-like weekly destination called “Rivalry Night.” Like seeing how NHL players are just like us, and then making reality television stars out of them.

The latest innovation is “NHL Revealed”, a 7-part series that will air on NBCSN and CBC that focuses on the seven teams participating in the NHL Stadium Series, itself a Collins innovation; as well as the star players that will compete outdoors and then in the Sochi Olympics.

Collins said it was past time for the NHL to use the Olympics to better promote its players.

“Through all the debate about whether we should be there as a League or not be there. We’re there. It’s a great platform. We should try to take better advantage of it while we’re there,” he said on Monday at a media luncheon.

"NHL Revealed" will feature players from the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.

It's going to follow star players through the outdoor games and Olympics, as well as those unsung heroes and fan favorites that "24/7" chronicles so well -- players like Willie Mitchell of the Kings were name-checked by the producers. In fact, their stories will continue through the Olympics even if they're not in Sochi.

The show is produced by Ross Greenburg, who was the guiding force behind “HBO 24/7” before leaving the network in 2011. It’ll have that look and that vibe, but Collins said it’s not a case where “NHL Revealed” is going to water down the next “24/7” featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.

That’s thanks to “the power of NBC and CBC,” he said.

“HBO does a phenomenal job. But ["24/7" viewership] can be like that Wilt Chamberlain 100-point game on Philadelphia where everyone says they were there," he said.

"HBO’s distribution in the U.S. is what it is. Nowhere near the firepower of what NBC’s going to bring to it. And their distribution in Canada is less than 1 million homes; certainly, far less than what CBC brings to it,” he said. “Being able to use these two networks to push it out is a game-changer.”

Again, it’s been a successful balancing act: Collins himself is a game-changer, without having the game dramatically change to reach his objectives.

• • •

The NHL announced the Stadium Series – five outdoor games in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Vancouver, to supplement the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor – in the wake of the 2012-13 lockout. Skeptics immediately figured it was a quick way to boost the League’s bottom line, and get revenues surging forward again to cover those work-stoppage losses.

Collins doesn’t believe that’s necessarily the motivation.

“To me, that’s not it. These games do well. They’re profitable,” he said.

“When you get into markets like Vancouver and see the mittens and the toques and the scarves and everything, it’s almost like having a 31st NHL team with all the revenue that’s created.”

All the more reason to hold these games after the lockout, actually. With strong revenues benefiting both the NHL teams and their players, the NHLPA was on board with playing and promoting the Stadium Series games, even if the lockout was a bitter affair.

“Work stoppages are business. It’s not that they don’t want to grow the game for the right reasons. They dealt with it, and move on,” said Steve Webb, Divisional Player Representative for the NHLPA.

The Stadium Series is going to make a monstrous amount of cash for the NHL, which means Collins is getting closer to his ultimate goals:

1. Making national revenue a bigger piece of the NHL pie, upwards of 25 percent of it from six percent.

2. Taking the NHL from a $3.2 billion company to a $4 billion one.

(Oh, you can hear that salary cap rising now.)

Collins doesn’t anticipate doing five outdoor games again next season, although the idea of multiple outdoor games as a way to reach NHL cities underserved by the Winter Classic intrigues him.

The next big revenue engine for the NHL? The Canadian media rights deals that will be sold by the end of the year.

After that: The return of the World Cup of Hockey, in what most people expect will be Sept. 2015. Collins said NBC would get first, and probably last, crack at the broadcasting rights.

• • •

We spoke with Collins about a number of topics, including the future of outdoor games and rivalry over-saturation:

Q. It may not be six games, but is the thought to continue doing these Stadium Series games so the Colorados and Minnesotas of the world can get a taste of outdoor events?

COLLINS: That’s certainly the opportunity. To get to more markets sooner, and to get back to markets that worked. Boston was a great experience. Philadelphia was a great experience. But if we’re only doing one game a year, we’re not getting back there in 10-15 years.

Has there been any thought to having a Stadium Series game overseas?

Yeah, they have had outdoor games overseas, in [Red Square in Moscow]. We’ve talked about it in a model in playing regular-season games or a World Cup or a Champions Cup.

“NHL Revealed” feels like “HBO 24/7”. Can there be overkill of this type of show?

Again, I see so much opportunity to grow the profile of the sport. I look at other sports that do this on a weekly basis … I think with the quality of the athletes, the quality of the game and the quality of the storytellers, I hope people don’t feel that way.

You mentioned that this show is going to be repackaged for other nations? Like, a Kopitar-centric show for Slovenia with the footage you capture here?

The international rights holders are definitely interested in whatever footage we have, and I think that’s the opportunity somewhere down the road. We want to be able to reconnect the European fan with their heroes.

Finally, the NHL has made rivalries the focus of its television properties: Rivalry Night on NBC, a show about rivals and rivalry games in the stadium series. Might the NHL be hitting that piñata too often? Is there a danger that rivalries are being stressed so much that teams without natural rivals are left out of the hype?

Some of it depends on programming windows. But the bigger picture is that we’re trying to build an incremental behavior for fans.

Getting fans to care about a game even if their favorite team isn’t in it. In time, maybe it just becomes a great matchup, like you have in Denver and New England next Sunday in NBC. There’s no history there, other than those two players, and the fact that they’re two of the best teams.

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