The NHL Winter Classic is in its fifth year, and as the event gets older and older, it's growing into a spectacle of its own. But as it expands to include more teams, the NHL is taking a big, but necessary, risk.
When the NHL started up the Winter Classic in 2008, it might not have been reasonable to suggest the event would become a staple of the regular season.
It's been more than that. With the New Year's Day stage on NBC, the Winter Classic has become a showcase event for the league, one more significant than anything else that happens before the playoffs.
While the event itself -- the romance of outdoor hockey is pretty cool, after all -- matters, the fact that the NHL and NBC have showcased major-market teams at high-profile venues hasn't hurt the event one bit.
Games at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park were huge hits, and last year's Classic in Pittsburgh had the added novelty of being played under the lights, something that didn't seem to hurt the atmosphere or the ratings.
Even if Monday's game in Philadelphia goes off without a hitch at its regularly-scheduled time, the NHL is looking at one of the final "safe" plays for a Winter Classic, at least in terms of the television marketability.
Assuming next year's game takes place in Michigan (Ann Arbor sounds like a strong possibility for a Red Wings-hosted Classic), the league may be looking at a ratings risk come 2014.
NHL COO John Collins has talked about the desire he has that the Winter Classic be the type of event fans tune in for no matter what.
"It's kind of that like that we use all the time: `Nobody ever cancelled their Super Bowl party because they didn't like the two teams that were playing in the game.'"
Admittedly, the NHL has a long way to go before it reaches this point. The league just doesn't have a lot of options when it comes to "markets it knows will draw a good TV rating for this type of event." Of the markets on that mythical list -- Chicago, Detroit, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington -- the league has already held the Classic in three of them, it's about to have it in a fourth, and the other two probably aren't that far away.
Collins mentioned the prospects of using markets like St. Louis, Colorado, or Minnesota to stage the Classic. While the lure is obvious, especially for Minnesota (dubbed the "State of Hockey" by its NHL team, the Wild), there is no good history to look at when it comes to the ability of the league to get good viewership out of games involving these teams.
(The Wild last made a serious playoff run in 2003, the Avalanche haven't been nationally relevant since Patrick Roy retired, and it's been a long time since guys like Brett Hull were pulling the Blues jersey on for games.)
Simply put, it's a risk for the league. Given the growth of the Classic, things might soon be to a point where the event is automatically relevant, no matter where it is or who is involved. It may not be a big deal to have the Wild play in the game, especially now that they are moving to the same division as Detroit and Chicago. Use Toronto as Detroit's opponent for a game in Ann Arbor, as has been discussed, and you are free to come back in 2014 with the Blackhawks and Wild at either TCF Bank Stadium or Target Field.
(I'd offer up a new Vikings outdoor stadium for this event, but there's no guarantee at this point we'll ever see it.)
The league is right to talk openly about showcasing "other" markets and teams in this game. Right now, the list of relevant franchises in the league doesn't number more than eight, no matter how you define the team "relevant" for this discussion. The Super Bowl succeeds because that event is so big that it doesn't matter who plays in it, and it helps immensely that the NFL has reached a point where it can put any two teams it wants on the national stage and still draw good ratings because it's a big-spot football game.
The NHL still needs big markets to draw big numbers. A Stanley Cup Final of Tampa Bay and San Jose would have been a disaster last spring. The huge local ratings in Boston kept the series we had from completely tanking.
Showcasing other markets in the Winter Classic would be a huge step toward reversing this trend and making the league a more attractive television entity. But it's going to take a risk before we know for sure if the league is ready for this.