Outdoor overload? When it comes to the Winter Classic experience, more is better

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Now that the NHL is planning six outdoor games for next season, it needs a new marketing campaign. It needs something like those TV ads for that wireless carrier, where the guy in a suit sits on the floor of a classroom with some kids.

“Who thinks more is better than less?” he asks.

Hands go up.

“OK, why?”

A little girl explains.

“We want more! We want more!” she says. “Like, you really like it, you want more.”

“I follow you,” he says.

“It’s not complicated,” the voiceover says. “More is better.”

It’s not complicated. More is better, as counterintuitive as that might seem in this case. Teams really like outdoor games, and fans really like outdoor games, and so the NHL is giving them more. Too much of a good thing? We’ll see, but not necessarily. Depends how you look at it.

TSN broke the news Tuesday night: First, as previously announced, the NHL will stage the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day – Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium. Then, as had been hinted and leaked, the league will stage additional outdoor games.

But not one more, or two more, or even three more.

Five more.

The tentative plan: Jan. 25, Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium; Jan. 26, New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils at Yankee Stadium; Jan. 29, Rangers vs. New York Islanders at Yankee Stadium; March 1, Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field; March 2, Ottawa Senators vs. Vancouver Canucks at B.C. Place.

Got all that?

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Much of the immediate reaction was negative. This wasn’t supply meeting demand but supply diluting demand. This would make outdoor hockey less unique when outdoor hockey is (or was) appealing precisely because it is (or was) unique.

Six games? With two in one stadium in one city in four days?

This is an obvious, legitimate concern. The NHL has been weighing it for years as it has considered expanding outdoor events. As chief operating officer John Collins said last week: “No one would be more concerned about not screwing up a good thing than we would be.”

If the NHL fails to sell out any of these games – even if it draws more fans than it would have for the same game indoors – it will have failed. Listen to Mathieu Schneider, the special assistant to NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr: “If you’re playing these games in front of 30,000 people and you’ve got 15,000 empty seats in a stadium, it’s not the same event that it is.”

There are other concerns, too. The more games, especially if they include warm places like L.A., the greater the chances that something will go wrong because of weather or logistics. Putting two games in New York right before the Super Bowl is played there could backfire if they are swallowed by the NFL hype. Instead of spreading out first-time, first-rate opportunities over a number of years, the NHL will burn through a number of them in one year. This could be perceived as a money grab, turning off customers, not attracting them.

But whenever you do something new and different, whenever you push boundaries, you’re going to have doubters. Look back at the first outdoor hockey game of this kind – Michigan vs. Michigan State at Spartan Stadium in 2001.

“The reaction I think of a lot of folks was probably very parallel and very similar,” said Mark Hollis, Michigan State’s athletic director. “We got a lot of, ‘It’ll never work. You won’t get anybody to show up at the game. It’ll be a poorly played game because of the conditions.’ ”

The game drew 74,544, a world-record crowd at the time. Not only did it work, it spawned all of this – and encouraged Michigan State to try other outside-the-box ideas, like basketball games on an aircraft carrier and at a U.S. Air Force base in Germany. Hollis said the Spartans have no plans to host another outdoor hockey game, at least in the near future, because another one wouldn’t be as unique and special. But he sees what the NHL is trying to do.

“I think the NHL has done a very good job of keeping the uniqueness over the years, and it’s going to be interesting to watch when you have six,” Hollis said. “What happens? What happens to the uniqueness? It’ll still be unique for each of those regions. I think they’ve done a good job of doing matchups that provide a local flavor by having for the most part local teams playing local teams. It becomes a hockey celebration for that area.”

That’s the key. It’s not that complicated.

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The brilliance of the Winter Classic has always been that the NHL found a way to make a gimmick special, to turn a fantasy into reality, to transform one regular-season game out of 1,230 into a Super Bowl-like event, not to mention a gold mine. But these games will still be special in their own way. They will still be gold mines.

Will the novelty wear off on a national level? Yes. Of course. But that was inevitable, and it has already started happening – not just because of the NHL, but because of all the other outdoor games involving college and minor-league teams. It was going to accelerate after the Big House, anyway. How do you top a world-record crowd of 110,000-plus?

Will the novelty wear off on a local level? Probably not any time soon. College and minor-league outdoor games generally don’t transcend their limited audiences, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The Heritage Classic didn’t interest many Americans in 2011 because it was the Canadian game, the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Flames, but it was big in Calgary. The Winter Classic didn’t have the same juice in 2012 because it felt like just another regional matchup, Rangers vs. Flyers, but it was huge in Philly.

Few care about the actual All-Star Game, a brutally boring exhibition, and some inside the NHL would prefer to eliminate it. The league has tried to spice it up with ideas like the Fantasy Draft. But were you in Carolina in 2011? Did you see the packed convention center and arena? Did you see the parties and hear the cash registers ring? There is a reason the All-Star Game goes on.

Owners want to hold these events – even if they have been involved before, especially if they haven’t. Players want to play in them. Fans want to attend them and buy merchandise related to them. Every year at the Winter Classic, there has been a buzz about where the next one would be – and the next one and the next one after that. Tuesday night, there was one more type of negative reaction: What about Minnesota? What about St. Louis? What about Columbus? What about Winnipeg? What about (insert another city)?

The NHL is often criticized for focusing on a few teams. But let’s face it: Not every team is a national TV draw in the United States. Under this plan, the Canucks, Devils, Ducks, Islanders and Senators will be involved next season, as well as the Blackhawks, Kings, Leafs, Penguins, Rangers and Wings. Presumably other teams will get a chance in the future, and what is stale to some will be fresh for them.

“I think there’s a place for the outdoor hockey in a long future, but it has to be special,” Hollis said. “Every game has to be special. I don’t know if anybody can quantify how many games that is a year, but it has to be special. It has to be something that stands alone. If it becomes routine, I think a little bit of that edge goes away.”

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The NHL understands that. It’s going from establishing outdoor hockey to spreading it around. The challenge is to make the games stand alone in each individual market.

“It’s always, ‘How many you do and where do you do them and how do you staff it?’ ” Collins said last week. “We’ve set the bar I think pretty high on all these. If you’re going into a market that’s had it, the bar is high. And if you’re going into a market that hasn’t had it, whatever you call it, the fact of the matter is, this is going to be there. They’ve seen it. They’ve heard about it, and they want the experience. So the bar is possibly even higher for them.”

The league has learned from previous outdoor games and has invested in equipment, so it is confident it can make ice in places like L.A. and host this many events. If you’re going to hold two games in one city, it might as well be the biggest city in North America when there will be an influx of sports fans for an even bigger event. If you’re taking more of a local focus, burning through Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium and Soldier Field isn’t as big of a deal. Two events coming off the Olympics – assuming, you know, the NHL goes – will help reignite the league.

And if the lockout didn’t remind everyone that this is a business and didn’t drive customers away, this won’t. Of course, these outdoor games are about making money. All of the indoor games are, too.

“You always hear reasons why you can’t do it,” Hollis said. “But I believe that the NHL is doing it for the same reasons that we did the first one, and that’s to celebrate and expose the game to people that might otherwise not be exposed to it. And if you can get 40,000-plus to show up for an event, many of them which maybe wouldn’t see a hockey game otherwise, I applaud them for the effort.”

More is better. So enjoy the games, or ignore them if you want. Don’t take it too seriously. Since when did a gimmick become sacred, anyway? Aren’t sports supposed to be about fun and entertainment?

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