NHL Not Extracting Full Value from Winter Classic Concept

Yesterday the NHL officially confirmed Fenway Park would host next year’s Winter Classic between the Bruins and Flyers. It’s another great choice – historic venue, great hockey town, two traditional teams with tremendous followings – all the makings for another successful event in attendance, ratings, and publicity. The game has become big enough and has enough potential that I feel the NHL should leverage it more, particularly in two areas.

Earlier this spring rumors swirled about a second Winter Classic, hosted in a Canadian city. NBC’s concern over the ratings impact and the NHL’s concern over dilution eventually quashed the idea, however the league is missing an important opportunity. College football used to own New Year’s Day. With the new BCS system they have let the pedal off the gas, cutting back on quantity of bowls played January 1st and putting what is essentially a meaningless game, often a poor matchup, as the sole primetime game. Hockey should carry the momentum and publicity of the Winter Classic concept to become a major player to own New Years Day sports. Keep the early afternoon time slot played in a historic stadium between two traditional teams (no Tampa Bay or Florida – EVER), and then throw in a night cap, under the lights from Canada between two Canadian teams. Remember, a bigger percentage of NHL revenue comes from Canada relative to overall revenue when compared to any other major US sports league. How big a TV rating would a Toronto-Montreal outdoor night game do, or at somewhere like Skydome? Needless to say, the teams would sell as many tickets as they could print.

The NHL also fails by letting NBC control the situation. NBC does so little for the league its absurd. Maintaining a broadcast network presence is a perceived requirement for legitimacy, but the NHL needs to get over that hump and realize broadcast television has little, if any, advantage over big cable networks and a fraction of the power it used to wield. NBC only shares ad revenue with the league, no rights fee. They fail to market the sport well, they dictate the schedule, they treat the sport like a daytime soap opera that desperately needs the network and is grateful for any speck of attention it receives.

Hockey is better than that. Forget NBC, find a way to play a second Winter Classic, assuming the TV rights, attendance, and sponsorship can offset additional costs and generate some revenue. Any positive revenue will be worth the enormous marketing boost. In addition, the NHL should strip the Winter Classic away from the NBC package, and either sell the two games as a New Years Day TV package, include them on a cable deal that has a rights fee where these games could increase that fee, or sell the games individually in each market. These games have some value in the open market, at least enough to warrant a deal better than the ad-share on NBC, and they warrant bigger build-up.

The NHL has an opportunity to become the story on New Years Day, they have some big stars (Crosby, Ovechkin, now possibly Tavares) in big cities to highlight, and great stadiums to play in. They should make it a platform to launch the season into full gear, try to maintain the hype during the All-Star game and hope it can catapult ticket sales and boost TV during the playoff run. At the least, the league can generate more revenue and more positive buzz by further developing the event and for once dictating the terms to NBC, not the other way around.

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