Winter Classic: Multiple outdoor games a risky move for NHL

Justin K. Aller

The NHL is reportedly close to a deal to bring a second and possible third outdoor game to America next season. Is this the right direction for the league?

With the NHL, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

On Sunday, news broke that the NHL is considering possibly two more outdoor games for next season, on top of the Winter and Heritage Classics. As the league was busy revealing the signature Maple Leafs and Red Wings jerseys for next year's Winter Classic, word spread through several reports that the NHL was close to a deal that would bring an outdoor game to Los Angeles at Dodgers Stadium, while there was further talk of another possible game that could be played at Yankees Stadium.

With discussion already in place about a possible Heritage Classic game next year (Edmonton and Calgary hosted the two previous outdoor games in Canada, in 2003 and 2011) and the NHL firmly behind the annual profit-boon that is the Winter Classic, the league is now looking at further expansion of the hockey brand in markets that likely would never be able to host an event of the level of the Winter Classic.

The annual New Year's Day game, which has now become a hallmark of the NHL's season and a major money grab for all involved, is a nationally televised event that has helped put the league back into the conversation across all North America and not just in Canada and the Northeast. Because of the attention the event receives, and the local support needed to make it successful, the same teams and locations are likely to begin repeating at the Winter Classic as the years wear on.

So it's only natural that, with teams across the league clamoring for a piece of that marketing pie, that the NHL would look to expand.

"The local aspect is something that we've been spending a lot of time talking to clubs about," NHL COO John Collins said on Sunday. "We've always said, ‘How do we get to more markets and share this experience?' We know that there are a lot of markets where the concept of an outdoor regular-season game would be magical and really fantastic, but they may not be markets that would really carry the weight of a nationally televised Jan. 1 game, so they may not get there. And then we look at the markets that we've been in. ... Clearly there's a demand and an opportunity."

The local aspect of such an event is what is driving this conversation, and it's one that has cropped up time and again as the Winter Classic has grown. A game between the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars at Cowboys Stadium? How about the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets at Ohio Stadium? The local impacts of these hypothetical games could be significant, although the national appeal of such an event is clearly far behind those involving the Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Penguins, Rangers, Flyers and others that have already participated in the Winter Classic.

So creating another event to accommodate what is reportedly a strong local interest in these sorts of events makes sense, especially if such a venture is able to further the NHL brand in markets where such events were never possible. There is a very real divide in fanbases of teams in "non-traditional markets" and the rest of the league when it comes to the perception that teams that exist outside of Canada and the Northeast will never receive any sort of attention from the league or the national media -- and the Collins basically admitted on Sunday that those same fans might never see their team in the premier NHL event of the season.

Reports have stated that the Los Angeles game would be part of Hockey Day in America, a celebration of the sport across the nation, which would certainly be a great way of promoting the game as separate from the Winter Classic and provide even more support for a national event that certainly needs more attention. That a possible second game, rumored to include the New York Rangers at Yankees Stadium, could be part of a Hockey Day doubleheader even furthers the notion of building more support for the NHL on a national scale.

The big caveat to all of this is the unknown; is it even possible for a market like Los Angeles to come out and support an outdoor hockey game to the extent that such an event would be financially feasible and would adding one or even two more games just dilute the Winter Classic brand? After all, the Winter Classic has always feature two American teams (until next season) and the exclusivity and timing of the event has made it into the phenomenon it has become -- it certainly hasn't been the hockey that's actually played.

Even with the Hockey Day in America celebration and subsequent outdoor games being held in February or March, giving plenty of room for the Winter Classic, there's a very real concern that the NHL could be spreading itself too thin. The Winter Classic received an incredible amount of hype and build up, aided by the HBO series 24/7, and one could even say the game itself has never been the most compelling. While watching two hockey teams battle through dense snow is exciting in some ways, watching two teams battle through a rain-sloshed ice surface might not be as entertaining.

It's likely that the NHL won't attempt to build an event even close to the scale of which the Winter Classic has become, nor should it. An outdoor game in and of itself would draw plenty of attention as a novelty, but would it be enough to justify possibly two such games a season on top of the Winter Classic? The NHL has stated it understands and acknowledges such concerns and that the league is still analyzing the financial obligations such an event would create -- there's certainly a much larger inherent risk with a game in Los Angeles versus an outdoor game in Michigan between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs.

Perhaps, at the very least, we should be grateful the league is not resting on its laurels and continues to work to find new ways of pulling in revenue from fans. For fans of teams outside of the "traditional" locations, however, the chance to have such an NHL-level event as the Winter Classic is something that certainly shouldn't be summarily dismissed.

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