For a league that struggles to market to the mythical casual fans without upsetting the die-hard fans, the Winter Classic could not have been more perfect for the NHL.
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A cold, blustery day with light to moderate snow in Buffalo provided the perfect backdrop for Pittsburgh's entertaining 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, but the game was about far more than the score.
A 2.6 rating/5.0 share on NBC impressed league and network execs, but the ratings might be on the low side. It has long been theorized sports ratings are lower than the real numbers, as the ratings tend to ignore those who watch the game in groups or at bars -- not to mention, the average 30-year-old, beer-drinking sports fan is not exactly the most likely person to fill out a survey on their viewing habits.
No matter how you cut it, most die-hard NHL fans tuned in for at least part of the game, while thousands of new fans stumbled on the game and likely approved of what they saw.
There has been talk of doing an outdoor game every year on Jan. 1, and that is unquestionably a great idea. Rotate it from city to city, and the league will reap the benefits.
However, the idea needs to be planted for a second outdoor game each year, this one coming a little later in January.
While Versus has done a great job of their NHL coverage and will likely continue to do so, it appears likely ESPN will re-enter the fray at some point. Versus is said to be very open to sharing the contract with ESPN, with the thought being the cross-promotion will help both the NHL and the young network.
As most of you under the age of 30 are likely aware, the annual Winter X Games are coming up in Aspen, Colorado, in a few days. Once dismissed by many as an ESPN creation, the Winter X Games have developed a sound following, particularly among the hard-to-reach 18-to-35 demographic.
Names like Shaun White, Gretchen Bleiler, and Blair Morgan are household names in that demographic -- every bit as much as or more so than Sidney Crosby, Ryan Miller, and Evgeni Malkin. Consider every sport is trying to find a way to reach the younger generation, where sports television ratings have dropped faster and more dramatic than any other demographic.
An annual outdoor NHL game tied in with the Winter X Games seems like an absolute natural. The events usually run Thursday through Sunday, leaving the NHL with a few options.
The first option would be to hold the game as a Winter X Games kickoff on Wednesday night, an event that would surely draw many of the competitors. A second option is to hold the game Sunday night as a type of closing ceremony -- again, sure to draw many of the competitors.
If the league wants to strike when the maximum number of tourists are in town, it could be arranged to hold the game Friday night or sometime Saturday afternoon or evening. The drawback would be less sightings of competitors and music acts, yet the league would maintain a tie-in with the event.
The Winter X Games are held every year in Aspen, Colorado, and there is no 75,000-seat football stadium in the town. Yet the league has discussed playing an outdoor game in a dramatic natural setting -- and what is more dramatic for hockey than the Rocky Mountains?
A temporary outdoor arena could be built -- think Mystery, Alaska. Depending on the location and logistics, it could be possible to make the structure more permanent and leave it standing year-round, with various winter sports utilizing the structure during the colder months.
If this does not work out, the idea of having 15,000-20,000 temporary seats is certainly not unprecedented. The seats could be stored the rest of the year, while they would be brought out once a year for the outdoor game -- again, think of the look of the rink in Mystery, Alaska, the movie that started the outdoor craze.
With an elevation of roughly 8,000 feet, Aspen would present some logistical issues, but nothing that could not be overcome. Denver is 5,280 feet above sea level, and much of the suburbs are closer to 6,000 feet. Colorado Springs has a major arena more than 6,000 feet above sea level. When that is taken into consideration, an additional 2,000 feet seems like a minor issue.
And while the city is located in the mountains, winter highs routinely reach the 40s. For an evening game, the temperature would likely be in the teens or 20s -- a little cooler than ideal, but significantly warmer than the successful Heritage Classic in Edmonton.
The game would be able to piggyback off the intense promotion of the Winter X Games, and many of the viewers -- and attendees -- would be in the much-targeted, 18-to-35 non-traditional hockey fan demographic.
The game itself might not be a moneymaker when the costs are weighed against the mid-sized arena, but as with the Winter Classic, this is about the bigger picture. If the NHL can draw new fans from the event, it becomes a far cheaper and more effective form of advertising than many of the current concepts.
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