There is nothing quite so romanticized in hockey as the frozen pond — playing outdoors, the fog of breath hanging in the air, snow falling as ruddy-cheeked lads battle the elements and each other in a game that nature grants them only during those long, cold weeks of short days.
But is the NHL’s romance with outdoor hockey dead? If so, perhaps that’s because the league loved it to death.
From the 2003 Heritage Classic came the wildly popular Winter Classic, then the Stadium Series. As the opportunity to view games outdoors has blossomed, the desire to do so, relatively speaking, has wilted.
The 2018 Winter Classic, between the New York Rangers and Buffalo, drew a 1.4 rating and 2.48 million viewers. That was the lowest-rated and least-watched Winter Classic in the game’s 10-year history, all on NBC. Ratings have declined to record lows for four straight years for the New Year’s Day game, down from a high rating of 2.5 and high viewership of 4.4 million in 2014, when Toronto and Detroit faced off in Ann Arbor (those figures match the numbers posted by the 2009 meeting between Detroit and Chicago at Wrigley Field).
Yet, even that low point is something of a high. The 2018 Winter Classic still ranks as the 12th highest-rated NHL regular-season broadcast on NBC, a history dating to 2006. That begs the question: Is outdoor hockey still popular enough to be continued, or is the downward trend permanent?
Stadium Series saturation?
Over the four seasons of 2007-08 through 2010-11, there were five stadium games. From the 20013-14 season through 2016-17, there were 15.
While they’re still selling a lot of tickets for those games, demand is something of an issue. When Pittsburgh hosted Washington in the 2011 Winter Classic, a sellout crowd of 68,111 came to Heinz Field and after-market tickets were reportedly going for an average of $489. In 2017, the Penguins hosted the Flyers at Heinz, the attendance was announced at 67,318 and face-value tickets were still available from the team box office at $89 the week before the game.
Perhaps, though, the NHL has recognized the benefits of returning a certain exclusivity to the outdoor games. Seven Stadium Series games were from 2014 through 2016. The schedule from 2017 through 2019 includes just three such games.
Location, location, location
The 2018 Stadium Series game, scheduled for March 3 between Toronto and Washington, was set for Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, kicking off a planned series of games at U.S. service academies. The 2019 Winter Classic between the Blackhawks and Bruins will be played at Notre Dame Stadium.
Based on those sites, it seems obvious that the NHL is looking at its outdoor games as an opportunity to spread hockey beyond its traditional markets and reach more than just its traditional fans.
Besides, sports marketers have noted that dwindling TV numbers and slowed ticket demand don’t necessarily spell doom for the outdoor exercise.
Scott Branvold, a Robert Morris University professor of sports management, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about some of the many benefits of outdoor games.
“These games are built around a whole series of events with alumni games, high school games, college games, fan fests, open skates, practice sessions for kids, et cetera,” Branvold said. “Some of those ancillary events may be as important for the sport as the hockey game itself.”
One other thing …
The players love them.
OK, so Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, now 4-0 in outdoor games after posting the 2018 Winter Classic win, might love them more than most. Still …
“I could easily play one every year, and I would not be tired of it,” he told sportsonearth.com. “You play 82 games (a season), but to get this opportunity in front of so many people, and the excitement around the game, it doesn’t get old to me.”
His teammate, Kevin Shattenkirk, was no less effusive, saying, “I think warmups, the national anthem, the flyover and the bald eagle — that stuff is something that you can’t beat. There’s those little moments, those TV timeouts — I know I was smiling most of the game, and just really enjoying it and looking around when I could and soaking it all up.”
Author bio: AJ Lee is Marketing Coordinator for Pro Stock Hockey, an online hockey shop carrying authentic pro stock hockey equipment. He was born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and has been a huge Blackhawks fan his entire life. AJ picked up his first hockey stick at age 3, and hasn’t put it down yet.