After five successful Winter Classics, the NHL has announced it will add an additional five outdoor games to next season's calendar. The Winter Classic will kick off the games on New Year's Day, as Toronto and Detroit meet at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
Four days later, Anaheim will face off against the Kings at Dodger Stadium in the first outdoor game staged by the NHL west of the Mississippi. Later in January, Yankee Stadium will host a pair of games with the Rangers, one against the Devils on Jan. 26 and against the Islanders three days later. In March, Chicago's Soldier Field will host the Blackhawks and Penguins, and Ottawa and Vancouver will take an outdoor game to Vancouver's BC Place.
The Winter Classic has become the crown jewel of the NHL's season. From 2008 through 2012, the Winter Classic at times eclipsed both the NHL All-Star Game and several playoff matchups. According to StubHub, the 2011 Winter Classic outsold Games 2, 3, 5 and 7 of the Stanley Cup finals that season. Previously, the 2010 Winter Classic outsold Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, and the 2008 Winter Classic was the second-best-selling game of the entire regular season.
When it comes to television ratings, the Winter Classic has also bested the All-Star Game and some Stanley Cup games. The 2011 Winter Classic was played in prime time because of weather, which pitted it against the Fiesta Bowl and the Rose Bowl. Regardless, the Winter Classic saw its ratings rise by 8 percent to a 2.9, dominating the 1.2 from the All-Star Game. The 2011 Winter Classic also had better ratings than Games 1 and 3 of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals.
Prior to the 2012-2013 season, which did not feature a Winter Classic due to the lockout, five of the six most-watched NHL regular season games in the past 27 years were Winter Classics.
No doubt then that the Winter Classic works for the NHL. Can that success be duplicated with five additional outdoor games, however?
"The way these outdoor games light up the community and give fans a chance to rally around the game and the clubs is way too important for the growth and popularity of the game not to look at doing more," said NHL vice president of communications and player relations Jamey Horan. "We hear the demand to do more outdoor games from our clubs, fans, players and partners."
Horan said many of the NHL markets had expressed interest in hosting an outdoor hockey game. Chicago, which hosted the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in 2009, wanted to host again as soon as possible. Fenway Park, the 2010 Winter Classic host, wanted to take on the event again in 2012, according to Red Sox chief operating officer Sam Kennedy. Fenway didn't get the 2012 Winter Classic, so instead the ballpark hosted 16 days of activities on a rink inside the ballpark, including high school and college games.
Next season, Chicago will try out Soldier Field as a venue, and Los Angeles and New York, which Horan says have been interested in hosting for a while, will each get the opportunity to host an outdoor game.
What will it mean for the Winter Classic? Dr. R. Todd Jewell, the chair of the economics department at the University of North Texas, says there might be some negative impact, but it will be offset by the positive impact of the additional games.
"Obviously, the more outdoor games, the less valuable each single game is," Jewell said. "So yes, the Winter Classic will be devalued, but this is a question of degree. The league is betting that the Winter Classic will be devalued by less than the value added by the additional outdoor games. My guess is that there is some excess demand for outdoor games and that the league will see greater attendance and marketing from adding the games."
Horan sees the Winter Classic as a separate, stand-alone event, and he isn't concerned that the league is saturating the market with outdoor games.
"The Winter Classic will always be a special national game on the New Year's Day holiday where everyone celebrates the game no matter your rooting interests," said Horan.
"The Stadium Series is focused more on lighting up the local market and community at a different time of the year. When you attend these events and witness the impact on the club's popularity, TV ratings, merchandise, media coverage, fan engagement and, maybe most important of all, the millions of dollars of revenue generated in the local economy, the games are way too important to wait 10 or 15 years either to return or to wait for a turn to host."
Jewell says these games aren't all about the teams, however. They're also potentially part of a larger strategy by the league for a bigger television contract next time around.
"These games are events that will capture eyeballs, possibly on national television, which is extremely valuable for the NHL. The league does a fairly good job of generating revenues via game-day attendance -- with the exception of a few franchises in small non-hockey markets -- but the real payoff for the league would be a bigger national television contract. Without insider information, there's no way to know if the outdoor games are part of a strategy to get a larger television contract, but it clearly could be."
The NHL's current television contract with NBC expires following the 2020-2021 season, giving the NHL plenty of time to see how the additional outdoor games play out.