Friday, January 03, 2014

Winter Classic: Go small or go home

Much thanks to Michael Caples
“The 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic was everything we hoped for, the biggest & best New Year’s Day party in our history." - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, 1/1/2014

How right you are, Mr. Bettman.

Aiming for the largest possible in-house audience for a game more than a year in the making and then delayed a year due to a lockout, the NHL did pull off the Big One in the Big House. A league-record 105,491 showed up in frigid temps and blowing snow to see the Toronto Maple Leafs pull of a 3-2 shootout victory over the host Detroit Red Wings.

And now it's time to downsize.

As my colleague and brother-in-arms Dan DiSciullo mentioned earlier in the week, if the NHL wants to keep outdoor games alive, it will feel free to do so, in as many venues as possible, to rake in the cash and boost those average attendance numbers which, due to the limitations of typical indoor venues, can't really top 18,000.

There are unsubstantiated reports that the 2015 Winter Classic will be held in Nationals Park in Washington DC, where substantiated rumors have the Flyers and Capitals squaring off in the shadow of the Potomac River. That's perfect -- a return to retro baseball venues whose capacities don't go further north of 50K. Let's not have any dreams of RFK Stadium or FedEx Field dancing in our heads.

I know the above photo is a panorama, whose perspective and sight lines are slightly warped. If the view between what appears to be close to the top level of seats in Michigan Stadium and the ice is anything close to what it looks, then count me in for vetoing any further ideas of hosting the New Year's event in football stadia, either pro or college.

Yes, that means I'm also renewing my distaste for any support of a future Winter Classic at 100,000-plus-seat Beaver Stadium and any resulting matchup between the Flyers and Penguins. Ann Arbor is 40 miles from a major US city. State College is a town in the middle of the state and hundreds of miles from anywhere, ill equipped to handle crowds which will equal a typical Penn State Saturday throng for each fan base.

Whether you're a fan or media member, what should be foremost in your mind is, y'know, seeing the game. When you're talking high five or low six-digit seating figures, that means your sight lines will be significantly poorer due to distance not only from your seat to the front row, but also that gap between the front row of seats and the actual ice surface.

Just being there shouldn't be enough. It's one thing to gain the envy of your peers by scoring floor seats to the Rolling Stones, but do you want to be one of the faceless throng dropping $100 or more to sit so far away, your best shot at seeing Mick Jagger's creaky old ass strut and fret and pout across the stage is to watch on the JumboTron? I realize there's a significant portion of hockey fans who don't care, but why not? Why not be part of something a bit more special, within a more intimate setting, when you and your neighbor can exchange knowing glances because you scored something someone else couldn't?

Russ Cohen of Sportsology was in attendance for the sixth time, and he revealed that the view from the press box in Ann Arbor was the second-best he encountered -- with only the first game at Ralph Wilson Stadium having better. Just think how good it will be for those whose job it is to cover, and how much better it will be for those who set aside the time and dish out the cash for the annual event when it takes place in cozier quarters.

What bothers me is contained in the following quote:

"We knew an NHL Winter Classic at the Big House with the Red Wings-Maple Leafs rivalry would be special, but what unfolded was extraordinary," said NHL's COO John Collins. "The players, the fans – and the elements – made for a record-setting afternoon and our partners at NBC, CBC and RDS delivered great coverage and unforgettable images. The magnitude and success of the overall NHL Winter Classic experience in both Detroit and Ann Arbor also underscore the continued growth of the NHL as a North American business."

It's nice that the game drew a 2.5 share in the USA (tied with the '09 Wings-Blackhawks Classic at Wrigley Field) and almost nine million viewers across North America. But if that particular matchup in a gargantuan locale is the only thing that will assure decent ratings, the future of the game will regrettably be tied to securing only the largest possible spaces that can hold the event with the smallest possible pool of teams.

For the one-shot deal that is the Winter Classic, there are plenty of untapped resources in the form of a baseball diamond which haven't been called upon yet: Target Field. Coors Field. Camden Yards. Busch Stadium. Jacobs Field. All of which are in hockey-rich regions and located within major cities that can handle a crowd. They're centrally located, downtown cores not too far away, with easy access to public transit -- the absolute antithesis of endless caravans lining the six-lane blacktop of the interstate just to get to the middle of a field or parking lot.

Now that the NHL knows it can be successful on a mega scale and also realizes it can't get any bigger, the only logical solution is to tap into the majority of venues which cater to the spirit of the game and the special effort required of its fans to enjoy.

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