With the NHL and NHLPA still unable to agree upon a new CBA, frustration is growing and optimism about a new season is quickly fading. But there is one big money making event that may save what hope is left for some hockey during the 2012-2013 season. That event is the Winter Classic. The one time during the season when teams take the game back to where it started, outdoors.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is threatening to cancel the outdoor game if the two sides are still unable to make a deal. But is he bluffing or actually serious? Right now Bettman has to be bluffing, the last thing he should want is to have to cancel the leagues biggest revenue generating event. Today it was announced that the league has cancelled games through to the end of November but still no mention of the Winter Classic. There is rumbling that the WC will get axed on Monday or Tuesday of next week, but it is likely a bluff.
The biggest reason the two sides are fights is because they can't figure out a way to divide up hockey related revenue, a word i'm sure all hockey fans are sick of by now. Why would the commissioner want to cancel the event that provides them with the most revenue? Both sides have been using the WC as a bargaining chip and a way to get fan support, it's been suggested by both sides that the season could even kickoff with the outdoor game. Realistically there is probably room to leave the WC scheduled until mid November. The rink could be constructed in no time, the fans who have already shelled out money for tickets would be more than happy to show up and because this is the 6th edition of the event fans know it's happening and will tune in.
Here's 3 reasons why the Winter Classic is too valuable to cancel.
The last two Winter Classic games made $30 and $36 million respectively, not including the $300 million in television deals, big money for the NHL. The outdoor games are averaging roughly 4.1 million people, one of the most viewed games in the entire season. With this years game those totals are expected to grow and hit record numbers with two historic teams facing off. There is an expected attendance of 115,000 (most ever), dollar signs are everywhere. Between the old fashioned jerseys, pictures, memorabilia, tickets and food there is all kinds of money to be made at these unique games and because of the uniqueness of the outdoor game fans are driven to come out and watch. If the Winter Classic does get cancelled Detroit will be out roughly $80 million.
2. Historic Rivalry.
One thing that hasn't happened in the Winter Classic yet is the inclusion of a hockey team from north of the boarder, a distant land called Canada. This year pro American Bettman finally caved by allowing the Toronto Maple Leafs, arguably the most historic franchise in NHL history, to play in the WC. It was about time Bettman did something that showed his support for hockey in Canada and as a result made Canadian hockey fans, especially Leaf fans, extremely happy. On top of naming the Leafs as one of the teams to play in the outdoor game he also named the Detroit Red Wings another historic franchise from south of the boarder. The Leafs and Red Wings are both original 6 teams and have quite a history between each other dating back to 1926, oddly enough the Leafs have won more games (1,387) than the Wings (1,347) who have built themselves a dynasty.
For those people who can't stand Bettman (myself included) you have to admit he isn't a fool. The Red Wings and Leafs have two of the largest and most dedicated fan bases in the entire league. I mean what other fans would still cheer for a team who hasn't made the playoffs in 7 years? The number of people north of the boarder that would tune in to watch the game or even make the trek down to Detroit would be fantastic and would only help generate more money. Having the Leafs and Red Wings in the Winter Classic is a recipe for success.
The other bonus to having the Winter Classic and turning it into a large event is the television deals and sponsors that want to support. The NBC and NHL have a $200 million contract providing that they have sole right to the game, a pretty penny to pay for such exclusive rights. The game is big for NBC and the NHL because fans, especially in America, begin to tune into the NHL around the end of December and as a result NBC's coverage of the NHL goes into full force from the Winter Classic to the Stanley Cup Finals. The American television network carries many large events and doesn't like to get "screwed" and by cancelling the Winter Classic and the season the NHL could potentially make a major enemy with one of the largest American broadcasters. Not exactly the way to help grow the sport south of the boarder. Not to mention the new feature that gives fans a behind the scenes look into the two teams participating in the Classic with HBO's 24/7 coverage, another money maker and creative way to entice fans.
What started as a fun experiment has turned into a great business venture for the NHL. The Winter Classic games draw the fans out, even fans that wouldn't regularly watch tune in to see the great game going back to it's roots. The Winter Classic is a wild card during these negotiations nether the owners, players nor fans want to lose the game and at the end of the day the owners would be stupid to let the Winter Classic game be cancelled. The money and popularity lost would hurt the game and maybe push Bettman out of a job.