For the past four years, the NHL’s Winter Classic has captivated both hockey enthusiasts and casual fans alike. The concept is quite simple: schedule a marquee matchup on New Year’s Day and play the game in an outdoor stadium.
The purpose behind staging the Winter Classic is twofold. It seeks to return hockey to its roots as an outdoor game, played in winter on frozen ponds and lakes. Many NHL players learned the game outside, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with venturing outside every so often. The past four Classics have sought to fulfill this ideal by being hosted in some of America’s bigger hockey cities (Buffalo and Pittsburgh) or being held in iconic venues (Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston).
The second purpose of the Classic is somewhat more commercial. Since its inception, the Winter Classic has consistently been one of the NHL’s biggest games in terms of TV viewership; it even surpasses some Stanley Cup games in television ratings. Because the league and its network partner, NBC, aggressively market the game, it captures casual American fans, something that the NHL desperately wants. It also helps that the game is held on the New Year’s holiday.
While the NHL has not yet decided on the location and teams for next year’s Classic, the top two possibilities appear to be a Rangers-Flyers matchup in Philadelphia or a Red Wings game at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich. Games in both locations would do well at filling both of the NHL’s goals for the Winter Classic.
However, the NHL cannot continue to satisfy tradition and reach out to the casual viewer simultaneously. The league appears to be looking strictly at the Northeast, with a little bit of the Midwest thrown in, as the only places where expansion is possible. The Classic risks becoming the province of a subset of NHL teams; already, there has been grumbling because the Pittsburgh Penguins have played in two of the four games held thus far.
In order to reach out to casual fans all over the country, the NHL needs to evaluate staging the Winter Classic in a different region than between Chicago and New York. I, for one, think it would be great for the NHL if next year’s Classic came here to the Bay Area, in Candlestick Park or AT&T Park.
The Bay Area would be a good fit for the game for several reasons. Though they rank behind a few teams, especially the Giants and the 49ers, in the region’s collective sports consciousness, the Sharks have a dedicated and passionate fan base that would surely snap up tickets to a Classic at Candlestick.
By and large, the NHL has overlooked the West Coast in its marketing strategy, despite the fact that California owns some of the nation’s largest media markets. Before this year, the Winter Classic was held at 1 p.m. Eastern time; this was good for not conflicting with BCS bowl games, but bad for viewers out West. No one is going to get up at 10 a.m. to watch a hockey game.
A Bay Area Classic would also attract a large number of casual fans from the West Coast that may otherwise not have tuned in to the game. The Winter Classic would electrify the hockey culture in the region, which could certainly use some revitalization.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, San Francisco in January can be quite cold. The main objection of the purists to venturing outside the Northeast is that it would take the “Winter” out of “Winter Classic.” However, as any San Fran resident knows, it gets pretty chilly in the city, and we wouldn’t have to resolve the logical quandary of how one can play on a sheet of ice in 70-degree outdoor temperatures.
The Winter Classic has been incredibly good for hockey, providing it with a great deal of exposure among an American viewing public that is generally apathetic to the sport. The NHL needs to leverage the Classic appropriately to maximize its benefit, and moving outside of the Northeast and into the Bay Area is the best way to spread on the West Coast.
Kabir Sawhney has returned to the world of irrelevant sports. Remind him that Stanford won the Orange Bowl at ksawhney “at” stanford.edu.