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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

How the Outdoor Games return the NHL to Greatness.

Anticipated by notable sports personalities to be an inevitable disaster, the pleasantly robust entertainment value provided by contest between the Pens and Sabres lowered the collective blood pressure of the events' anxiety-ridden organizers. While slightly compromised by the uncontrollable flurries which plagued visibility and puck handling throughout the latter portions of the 'Ice Bowl', the viewing public was treated to a event of exceeding quality.

What was billed as a vital showcase for the great winter game, The Winter Classic in Buffalo on New Years Day left few of the 73,000 fans disappointed. They were treated to a Crosby-assisted goal 24 seconds into the game, a flurry of pressure from the home Sabres in the second frame in an attempt to tie, and eventually a value-added overtime and shootout session with the GWG scored by none other than Sid the Kid to hoist the Penguins to a 2-1 victory.

An event of this nature requires more behind the scenes preparation than most have the capacity to imagine prompting many to question the NHL's ability to pull it off. With a little less than the time required to freeze the surface – let alone construct a structure apt to support an official NHL game – Dan Craig and his team responsible for the makeshift rink at Ralph Wilson Stadium proved as valuable to the game as Crosbys' shootout winner. While temperatures hovered in the trouble area slightly above freezing, players seemed pleased, if not sympathetic with the quality of the surface which allowed a spirited New Years Day hockey game to compete for television viewers with the 6 NCAA Bowl games – a goal for the organizers from the outset.

Ultimately this game was bigger than Crosby and the Penguins, bigger then the Sabres and Ralph Wilson Stadium. It was about the vitality and prosperity of the NHL which is centered prominently around improving their status with US-based TV broadcasters. Television largely dictates the financial wellbeing of the aforementioned groups, making it a decisive initiative for the long term success of the NHL.

North American corporatism has long since bled its way into sports marketing and brand management for all of the major sports leagues. This success of the showcase that was the Winter Classic, while executed with much luck and a comparable dose of hard work, allowed the fanatics – both watching on TV and in person – to embrace the quality that is the NHL. Notwithstanding the unexpected lack of offense and the unfavorable weather conditions, this sessions outdoor game has proven positive in countless avenues for the NHL and the game of hockey. Fan support was strong and unwaivering, as most were seen in their seats at the conclusion of the game, in addition to their financial contributions not limited to tickets and concessions, but on site sales of Winter Classic merchandise estimated in excess of a cool million(courtesy of The Sports Business Journal).

Following this raving success, the perceived interest of the viewer on behalf of the TV networks is very high, a factor that is paramount to forging desirable avenues to market and promote the game. NBC even had Bob Kostas hosting their telecast. He may not have the savvy wit or charisma of Ron Burgundy, but he IS a big deal. These two factor will support the NHL's push to reassociate itself with EPSN at a point which the temporal dynamics couldn't matter more. ESPN and the NHL are currently around the negotiating table trying to strike a mutually beneficial deal for broadcasting rights to the 2008-09 season. On the heels of surprisingly high traffic on the NHL pages of ESPN.com and a successful showcase in the form of the Winter Classic, surely the NHL will regain some much needed leverage after shafting ESPN in favor of Versus two seasons ago. Wish them luck, as a blossoming relationship with the Worlds leading producer of sports-related content is a giant step towards enhanced notoriety for the NHL.

With the success of the NY Day game in the books, we move forward in anticipation of the inevitable discussion regarding subsequent outdoor games which already brews loudly in speculative commentary throughout the sports world. Any such discourse is promptly met with a devils advocate quick to point out the lesser points of these outdoor events. Is it a gimmick that will wear off? How many other cities will support an outdoor game? Are spectacles like the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton and the 2007 Winter Classic in Buffalo a novel modality to promote and market hockey to emerging/struggling hockey markets? The continued success of these special events further supports annualizing the outdoor on-ice combat, but not without modification.

Don't have it on January 1st. The competition from other popular sporting events is more than slightly problematic, but was touted as reason enough to sink the TV ratings for the 2007 version straight into the sewer. Fortunately, the TV rating eclipsed those of the past decade to a level not recorded since the 1990's (courtesy of NBC). Why not host the All Star outdoors? It would provide a stimulating twist to the frequently lackluster NHL All Star festivities, deeming it worthy of consideration. In doing so, alleviated are the concerns regarding cancellations due to weather, or other unforeseen elemental difficulties; a factor that will certainly strikes a cord with the risk-management oriented among NHL executives worried about points allocation and playoff implications should an outdoor game start and fail to finish. Either way, just get Sidney Crosby out there and everything should work itself out. Or maybe we should just ask him how to organize more games in the future? I can see the bracelets now: WWSCD?

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