By Barry Janoff
October 7, 2013: When the National Hockey League earlier this year unveiled its plan to play six outdoor games during the 2013-14 season, people both inside and outside the league not only questioned the strategy but wondered if, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the NHL had added too much, not enough or got it just right.
"Before the season, the question I heard the most, everywhere I went, was, 'Isn't six outdoor games too much? Won't that kill what makes the concept so unique?'" said Brian Jennings, evp-marketing for the NHL.
Now, with the season underway and the dates for the outdoor games within sight, fans, media, marketers and players are warming up to the concept of six outdoor games in one season.
"There is demand for outdoor games," said Jennings. "It is not [just] about selling out the stadiums; it is about embracing each community. The game in Los Angeles won't look like the games in Chicago or New York. The challenge is to make each one unique. "
The six outdoor games encompass the annual Bridgestone Winter Classic on Jan. 1 — being played this year in 100,000-plus capacity Michigan University Stadium with the Detroit Red Wings hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs — and the Tim Hortons Heritage Classic — scheduled for March 1 in Vancouver's BC Place, with the hometown Canucks hosting the Ottawa Senators — in addition to four games under the new umbrella Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.
Those four games will see the New York Rangers play the New Jersey Devils (Jan. 26) and the Rangers play the New York Islanders (Jan. 29), both in Yankee Stadium; the Los Angeles Kings hosting the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 25 in Dodger Stadium; and on March 1, the Pittsburgh Penguins heading to Soldier Field to play the Chicago Blackhawks.
"With the Bridgestone Winter Classic, the Tim Hortons Heritage Classic, the four Coors Light Stadium Series games and the Winter Olympics in Sochi, this is probably the most ambitious year in the history of the NHL," said Jennings.
The Winter Olympics are scheduled for Feb. 7-23 and, as happened during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, necessitate the NHL shutting down for the duration to allow players to represent their respective nations. Jennings said that the NHL and NBC would use the Coors Light Stadium Series to drive interest in the Olympics, and then, in turn, use Olympic programming to drive the audience back to the NHL.
"We're excited about the potential of the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series," said Adam Dettman, director of sports and entertainment marketing for MillerCoors. "This is the third year of our deal with the NHL, but it feels like Year One. You always want to find the right rhythm to engage fans and enhance their experience without intruding, and [the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series] does that."
Both Jennings and Dettman, who were speaking as part of the CSE Sports Marketing Symposium & Social Media and Sports Series presented by SportsBusiness Daily/Global/Journal in New York last week, understood the pros and cons of presenting outdoor games en masse. Concurrently, they both accentuated the positive about the Stadium Coors Light Series and, in particular for Jennings, about adding four outdoor games to the league's already successful Winter and Heritage Classics.
"[NHL] cities are embracing these games," said Dettman. "They want more outdoor games."
As title sponsor, Coors Light gets some of the headaches and lots of the perks. In addition to its name on the marquee, the brand will get on-air title broadcast rights, camera-visible dasherboard placements of the Coors Light logo, in-arena video spots and PA announcements, activation across key retail and on-premise accounts and integration of the Coors Light brand throughout all NHL media properties, including video, print, digital and radio.
The NHL understands the power its outdoor concept, which has grown in importance since the first NHL regular-season outdoor game was played in 2003 when the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens in Commonwealth Stadium.
Five of the six most-watched regular-season NHL games in the U.S. in the past 37 years have been played outdoors, according to the NHL. The 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on NBC aired in primetime and was the most-watched NHL regular-season game ever in the U.S., with an average of 4.5 million viewers, according to NBC.
But back to the question at hand: Will six be too much? Or not enough.
"We will monitor it," said Jennings. "If six is too many, or if six is not enough, we will continue to reinvent it."
The NHL this season also gets the added impetus that will come from the NFL's Super Bowl XXLVIII being played in MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ, making it the first Super Bowl to be held in a non-domed venue in the northern part of the U.S.
Super Bowl XLVIII is scheduled for Feb. 3, the Sunday after the two outdoor NHL games in Yankee Stadium.
"We will be respectful of what the NFL is doing in New York for the Super Bowl," said Jennings. "But we will activate our marketing plans and focus on engaging our fans for our games."
"We're excited about having the two Coors Light NHL Stadium Series games in Yankee Stadium during the same week as Super Bowl XLVIII," concurred Dettman. "We see this as a strong part of our strategy in partnering with the NHL. It is a great brand fit with shared consumers and it is helping us to create ritualistic events that will involve and build fan engagement."
"We'll be respectful of what the NFL is doing in New York for the Super Bowl. But we'll activate our marketing plans and focus on engaging our fans for our games."
The outdoor Winter Classic has been held in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium (2008); Wrigley Field, Chicago (2009); Fenway Park, Boston (2010); Heinz Field, Pittsburgh (2011); and Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia (2012).
The 2013 Bridgestone Winter Classic was cancelled due to the lockout and rescheduled for Jan. 1, 2014, with the same venues and surrounding activations generally left intact. Most of the events leading up to the game in Michigan University Stadium will take place in and around Detroit's Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena, The Hockeytown Winter Festival will feature a plethora of fan-specific activities title-sponsored by SiriusXM and incorporating activations from many of the NHL's marketing partners.
The 2015 Bridgestone Winter Classic will be hosted by the Washington Capitals.
PepsiCo's AMP Energy drink was title sponsor for the first Winter Classic. Bridgestone has been title sponsor since then.
NHL, Marketers Taking Winter Classic, Outdoor Games To Another Level
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