The Winter Classic is the NHL's golden goose.
It's a money-making bonanza that sets attendance records and draws gigantic television ratings that often exceed the amount of people who tune into the Stanley Cup Final.
This is why the league's bold decision to stage a record six outdoor games during the 2013-14 season is a strategy worth testing.
The NHL announced the 2014 Heritage Classic on Wednesday, which will be played between the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks on March 2 at BC Place. Here are the other five outdoor games scheduled for next year:
- Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings: January 1 at University of Michigan
- New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils: January 26 at Yankee Stadium
- New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders: January 29 at Yankee Stadium
- Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings: January 25 at Dodger Stadium
- Chicago Blackhawks vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: March 1 at Soldier Field
The staggering amount of revenue generated from these games is one of the top reasons to host more than one of them each season.
The City of Detroit lost an opportunity to earn an estimated $30 million with the cancellation of the 2013 Winter Classic, per CBC, which helps prove the economic impact that hosting this game can have on a community.
After losing a total of 628 regular season games because of the 113-day lockout last year, the NHL earned about $2.2 billion in revenue, per Renaud Lavoie of RDS. While that's an impressive number for a 48-game season, it's still about $1 billion less than what was generated in 2011-12.
Staging multiple outdoor games and taking in enormous amounts of money from merchandise, tickets and other sales will help the owners get back some of the revenue lost in the shortened 2013 season, while also allowing the league's revenue to grow to new heights in future years.
Another reason to schedule more outdoor games is to give as many franchises as possible an opportunity to host one. When the Winter Classic is the only outdoor event on the schedule, only two teams get to take part. After the 2014 Winter Classic, just 10 of the 30 NHL teams will have participated since the event was created in 2008, and three clubs will have participated twice.
There are so many teams in cold-weather climates with fantastic hockey communities that deserve to host a Winter Classic that haven't already, but not all of these markets will draw massive television ratings.
Since NBC began its national television contract with the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout, many of its most impressive single-game ratings were from Winter Classic broadcasts, per TV by the Numbers (Winter Classics in italics):
Most-watched NHL Regular-Season Games Since 1975
4.5 million Jan. 1, 2011 NBC Capitals-Penguins
4.4 million Jan. 1, 2009 NBC Red Wings-Blackhawks
3.8 million Jan. 27, 1996 FOX Six-game regional coverage
3.8 million Jan. 1, 2008 NBC Penguins-Sabres
3.74 million Jan. 2, 2012 NBC Rangers-Flyers
3.68 million Jan. 1, 2010 NBC Flyers-Bruins
The state of Minnesota is a hotbed of hockey at the youth, high school and college levels, but the Wild don't have the national appeal of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Philadelphia Flyers, who have already taken part in multiple Winter Classics.
Scheduling several outdoor games allows the league to benefit from major, traditional hockey markets drawing huge ratings while also giving smaller cities a chance to partake in the event. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved.
What the NHL will lose in national appeal because of the larger-than-normal amount of outdoor games, it will make up for substantially with the local interest and growth that the communities involved will see as a result of hosting the event.
One criticism of the decision to have more than one outdoor game is that it will be too much for fans to consume. As someone who attended the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park, I cannot imagine how hockey fans would want fewer outdoor games, or not have the appetite to watch these events on television multiple times in a one-month period.
If the NHL wants to play six outdoor games on an annual basis, sign me up. It's a strategy that will help the league build momentum and captivate casual fans during the regular season before the excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs commences.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.
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