I Don't Like Mondays On Thursday — January 7, 2016
To borrow an old joke, how do you create a modest promotion? Give Gary Bettman a blockbuster promotion and let him work his magic on it.
For proof look no further than the NHL’s golden goose known as the Winter Classic, aka the Heritage Classic, aka the Stadium Series… and so on. For much of the post-lockout years (that would be post 2004—’05 -lockout) the concept of staging NHL games at large outdoor venues such as baseball or football stadiums put the NHL ahead, albeit briefly, of its more powerful brethren in the NFL, MLB and NBA in the promotional game.
Well, that ship has sailed, at least in the U.S.
In its earliest versions — Edmonton 2003, Buffalo 2008 — these outdoor games were, in fact, a godsend for a league that seemingly hadn’t had an original promotional idea since putting player names in the back fo jerseys. Players wearing touques, trailing vapored breath, their cheeks red from the crisp winter wind, custom jerseys for the occasion — it was a brand made whole amidst falling snowflakes.
It was also an antidote to the league’s self-destructive behaviour toward its great asset, the players. Coming off the Phyrric lockout win in 2004-05, the splashy marriage between the NHL and some iconic locations — Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium — intrigued NBC enough to use the games as a lead-in to the annual Rose Bowl football game.
In some cases it worked splendidly. The 2014 Classic at University of Michigan between Detroit and Toronto popped a 2.9 rating, tied with 2009 for the highest rating ever on New Year’s Day. But the 2015 New Years Day game pitting Washington and Chicago dropped to 2.4 overnight rating. This year’s game in Foxboro, Massachusetts, between the Bruins and Montreal collapsed to a worst-ever overnight 1.6 — not helped by the lopsided 5-1 win for the visitors from Canada.
There were other extenuating circumstances. Boston has been scheduled for too many of these games, Montreal is a Canadian market that returns no U.S. ratings. This year’s game, however, did not have any significant opposition from any early New Year’s Day NCAA bowl games. So the number has to be a disappointment to sponsors and a gut check for Bettman, whose marketing whiz John Collins has left the league after spearheading the outdoor concept.
The problem for the Winter Classic lies in the number of outdoor games the NHL has promoted as an antidote to its messy four-month lockout in 2012-13. Where once there was something unique about the snow-globe look from Buffalo in ’08 or the New Year’s Day slot, the novelty was lost as the league has put on a whopping nine outdoor games since the 2013-14 lockout — with two more still to come this season. If you could hold a freeze on an ice surface for a few hours, you’d be rewarded by the league’s deep thinkers with an outdoor contest.
With gates up to 100,000 people for some games, the temptation of easy money was again too much for the NHL owners to resist. (Their thirst for more expansion teams is another sign that they feel their brand is elastic. Very elastic.) As any parent can tell, giving twice the gifts doesn’t mean twice the love. So it has been for the NHL which has taken a stand-alone event and diluted its unique nature with a lot of games that did not capture the U.S. public imagination — as happened in the early games.
Having exploited most of the iconic stadiums already, future sites are unlikely to carry much cachet. Minnesota and Denver are upcoming venues. Hands up everyone dying for a game at Coors Field? Only southern Ontario promises much buzz — and a Canadian city does little to boost NBC’s ratings. In addition, the NHL has slavishly overexposed the major U.S. teams such as Chicago (4), Detroit (3) Boston (2), Pittsburgh (3), Philadelphia (2) and New York Rangers (3).
While their diehards will always tune in, there’s no groundswell to see a certain team for a third time or more. So now the NHL is left with a diminished property, one that is still well attended live. Without college football on New Years Day, NBC also has no better alternative for the slot before the Rose Bowl. So it will limp along as a TV spectacle.
If the league truly wanted to save the format as a grand spectacle, it should make its lame All Star Game format into the annual Winter Classic. There’s something slightly bogus about two or three valuable points being decided on brutal ice. Better to have a game that no one — least of all the players — sees as great hockey played in front of a corporate crowd. But that would require inspiration. And for the NHL without Collins, inspiration is in short supply.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).