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Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Matt Carle (25), Boston Bruins right wing Byron Bitz (61) and Flyers' Chris Pronger (20) chase after a loose puck during the first period of the New Year's Day Winter Classic NHL game on an outdoor rink at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, Jan. 1, 2010. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Matt Carle (25), Boston Bruins right wing Byron Bitz (61) and Flyers' Chris Pronger (20) chase after a loose puck during the first period of the New Year's Day Winter Classic NHL game on an outdoor rink at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, Jan. 1, 2010. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Outdoor games key cog in NHL marketing machine Add to ...

The roof was open, the air crisp and dry at midday, and sun streamed into BC Place from the southwest: It would have been perfect for some open-air hockey in Vancouver. What will be the hockey rink was marked off on the football turf. Hockey nets stood at each 21-yard line.

Last Thursday, a pristine December day, was only a marketing stage, however, as the National Hockey League expands its outdoor game roster from the typical one per winter to a series of six events, all of them aimed to lure fans and produce new profits. John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, calls them “Valentines” to fans.

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Some skeptics have moaned about the proliferation of outdoor games, but the contests are being embraced by fans and marketers. Sponsors pour money into the games, and tickets sell fast. A sellout of the 55,000 available in Vancouver for the March 2 game against the Ottawa Senators is expected, and two games at Yankee Stadium scheduled near the Super Bowl are close to sold out.

The 110,000 or so predicted to fill the Big House at the University of Michigan, showcasing the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings in the Winter Classic, will be record-setting.

This is the business of the NHL operating with more oomph than it’s ever had before. The half-dozen outdoor games is part of the reason next year’s salary cap is shooting up by around $6-million (U.S.) toward $71-million – and the games are a visible display of a league buoyed by a big-time new TV contract in Canada and strong exposure on NBC in the United States. The NHL is becoming less and less a poor cousin of the NFL, MLB and the NBA.

Expect more, not fewer, outdoor games on the long NHL calendar in the year ahead, tied, of course, with special television programming. The days of one per winter are past. Cities jockey to host games. Washington stages the Winter Classic next year, Winnipeg has been offered a game, likely for 2015-16, and even Phoenix in the desert wants one in 2015 when the city has the Super Bowl.

“There’s certainly no shortage to the markets and the teams that want to host one of these, and markets where we’ve been are eager for us to come back because it’s been such a good experience,” Collins said in an interview at BC Place.

Collins is the league’s force behind the staging of such spectacles. His career began with six years in the ad business on Madison Avenue in his 20s, before he moved to pro sports. When Collins arrived at the offices of the National Football League in 1989, his first job was to develop and sell programming for NFL Films, whose cinematic storytelling style changed the way sports were presented to fans.

The importance of narrative, of big events, of swooping cameras and up-close images became imbued in Collins’s philosophy of how to broadcast, market and profit from sports. After he rose to senior vice-president of marketing and sales at the NFL, helping build the sports-marketing juggernaut that exists today, he injected the National Hockey League with the same verve when he joined the league in 2006.

The annual Winter Classic, the New Year’s Day outdoor game with its 24/7 reality TV franchise on HBO, emerged as Collins’s signature event – bearing all the hallmarks of his years in football, a critical success, box-office winner and advertising boon.

Previous Winter Classics have pulled in more than $10-million in tickets, advertising and merchandise (new versions of jerseys are a staple of the recipe).

This winter, Collins and the league are testing the idea of whether a good thing can be replicated over and over.

Big events are magnets for advertisers. Tim Hortons is the title sponsor of the Heritage Classic in Vancouver, while Coors Light has draped its brand on the four-game Stadium Series, two in New York, one in Los Angeles, and one in Chicago. Coors Light – whose owner MillerCoors two years ago signed the biggest corporate sponsorship deal the NHL had ever done – is also the sponsor of a new TV show called NHL Revealed, a seven-part series that will feature the players and teams in the outdoor games and the Olympics.

All of it is a push to attract the attention of casual fans, and new fans, who might not otherwise cast a glance toward hockey. Collins acknowledges the NHL’s six-month, 82-game regular season is a long grind and the six outdoor games add needed spice. And the TV shows – with their NFL Films style – brings people closer.

“It changes the way casual fans get to experience the game – and really relate to it,” Collins said.

Such thinking is part of the reason the NHL has increased annual revenue past $3-billion and toward $4-billion, from the $2-billion coming in when Collins arrived.

“These games are parties,” said Rick Powers, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “It’s an event, it’s the glitz. People don’t want to miss it.”

The NHL has become an expert in erecting what marketers call “tent poles,” events that elevate the business as a whole, said AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Marketing, which specializes in sports and sponsorships. The league-run events promote the NHL and the money helps all 30 teams, rather than just the big names. This underpins the ideas to stage events in Europe, and a World Cup of hockey.

“Hockey’s biggest moments were traditionally the playoffs. The NHL has done a terrific job of creating new events,” said Maestas, who noted outdoor games are “highly visible” for potential viewers. Indeed, previous Winter Classics are all among the most-viewed NHL regular season games ever in the U.S., drawing about four million each year – better figures than some Stanley Cup final games.

“There’s more in store,” said Maestas, “and I don’t just mean more outdoor games.”

The outdoor extravaganza had a fitful beginning. The first game, in Edmonton featuring the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens, was staged in late 2003 but was abandoned, amid lack of gusto from the league and the general challenge of logistics. NBC had been pushing for another one and found a like mind in Collins when he came to the NHL. The first Winter Classic in Buffalo, pitting the Sabres against the Pittsburgh Penguins, attracted a record NHL crowd of 71,217, which will be trumped by the 100,000-plus on Jan. 1 for the Maple Leafs and Red Wings.

Where critics argued the sheen of an outdoor game would be tarnished by staging a half-dozen of them, there is no sense that local fans in Vancouver are upset there will be an outdoor game the day before in Chicago on March 1. The two games together are being used by the NHL to refocus attention on the league and the coming Stanley Cup playoffs coming out of the Winter Olympics.

Attention swarms around these events. The Vancouver game already had a splash of publicity several weeks ago in Ottawa, when the Canucks visited the Senators and the special game jerseys were unveiled, a spotlight on one of the streams of cash flowing in. Then again last Thursday, there was another spike of coverage to showcase the venue BC Place. The press conference was carried live on Sportsnet Pacific.

The games are a celebration of hockey. They are also cash cows – which Collins proved with the Winter Classic and is proving again on a much-bigger scale this winter.

“It’s to grow,” said Collins. “Hockey should grow, it should be bigger, and this is a great way to reach new fans.”

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