The Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and the Calgary Flames is a week away; an event many feel is a way for the NHL to quiet critics who complain about the absence of Canadian teams in the prestigious Winter Classic.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is not among that "many." In a revealing and at times contentious interview with George Johnson of the Calgary Herald today, Bettman addressed the idea that this event at McMahon Stadium is "an appeasement to cranky Canadians":
BETTMAN: That's absurd. It's baseless. It's someone looking for something on a slow news day, looking for something to write or say, to be critical for no reason. The first outdoor game was the Heritage Classic in Edmonton, and the fact that we managed to pull off a very clever promotional idea and move it into the United States in an available time slot on New Year's Day has nothing to do with the importance of playing an outdoor game in Canada.
Bettman later gets close to the truth of the matter when he says, "the game on New Year's Day was intended for U.S. TV." Which, as we've said many times, means that Canadian teams whose home television markets won't contribute to NBC's ratings have no home in the Winter Classic (barring a one-shot appearance for the Canadians or Maple Leafs for some Original Six gimmick; we think there's a slim chance for that down the line).
As with most NHL games on American TV, local ratings are the engine for national ratings. The 2011 Winter Classic pulled a 46 share in Pittsburgh and a 13 share in the D.C. market (and an 11 share in Baltimore). Losing either half of that viewership would be a huge blow to national ratings; see any Cup Final between a U.S. and Canadian team for an example of that.
Coming up, a couple of other bits of Bettman intrigue from the interview.
Johnson asked an interesting question about whether these grand outdoor games actually, you know, make money. Said Bettman:
BETTMAN: They make some money, depending on how big the stadium is you're playing in. Your ability to make money is obviously enhanced by playing in, say, a stadium with 70,000 seats. What people tend to forget is that these are very expensive events to put on, very complicated to put on. And, frankly, if we didn't think it was important, beyond the financial aspect . . . because they are a logistical nightmare and extraordinarily expensive and difficult. So anyone that thinks we're doing this, to use your words "as a matter of appeasement" is wrong, because it's hard to do. Why do it just for that purpose?
Everything we've heard about the Winter Classic was that it's an ATM machine for the NHL. And Tim Horton's is sponsoring the Heritage Classic, which isn't exactly Chico's Bail Bonds.
Is this Bettman trolling for sympathy or do these events turn a smaller profit than one might expect?
Finally, on the issue of multiple Classics in an NHL season, Bettman said the following:
BETTMAN: As I said before, they serve slightly different purposes. There are some people advocating that we do a string of these games. Would that be a good thing, even ignoring the feasibility for a moment? As I said before, I think we need to take a deep breath after we finish this cycle and figure out what makes sense.
HERALD: I think there is concern, though, that by increasing the number, or maybe even holding it at two, you run the risk of diluting the uniqueness aspect.
BETTMAN: Yes, well, I can argue this both ways. We put on 1,230 regular-season games. Is having two of them outdoors going to suggest we've diluted the idea? This year there are still going to be 1,228 games played inside arenas. It goes to the point that you raised initially - everything you do is going to have critics. If you want to criticize the outdoor effort you say, "Too many!" But I don't buy that. That's why we're doing this now. Where we go from here with this concept, frequency, where we do them, is impacted by a whole bunch of factors, including facilities that may or may not be available.
Two outdoor games a season, wherever they're located, is a level most fans can handle. Anything more is going to draw a backlash.
Of course, added games might answer that other question about whether they make money.