SBJ/January 9-15, 2012/Events and Attractions

Behind the scenes at the NHL Winter Classic

As much as the NHL Winter Classic has grown to become a celebration of all things hockey, it has become a summit for NHL business partners as well. With that in mind, SportsBusiness Journal blanketed this year’s Winter Classic on game day, Jan. 2, at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park to offer a glimpse of the event from the stakeholders’ perspective and a day in the life on the business side of this marquee event.

10:15 a.m.
RED WING RECONNAISSANCE: It’s one of the biggest stories of the year in the NHL: Where will the next Winter Classic be held? That’s a tribute to the size, scope and success of the event after just five years — that before a current version is even completed, there’s widespread speculation on future sites.

After warm temperatures last year in Pittsburgh, the Philly weather brought smiles.
Photo by: ROD SNYDER
There have been various outdoor games over the years, but the Winter Classic was set in motion by a 2001 game between Michigan State and the University of Michigan that drew 74,544 to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. A 2010 rematch of those teams at Michigan’s “Big House” drew a record 113,411. Hockey lives strong by the Great Lakes, and since the first Winter Classic, there’s been speculation that the Detroit Red Wings would host a game. The Red Wings have already made one appearance in the showcase, beating Chicago in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. So even before this year’s game at Citizens Bank Park is played, talk turns to next year, and a senior NHL executive at the game says the league will make an announcement by the Jan. 29 NHL All-Star Game and that next year’s event will “break records.”

It comes then as little surprise when a group of Red Wings employees is spotted on a tour of Citizens Bank Park. When asked if the group is doing reconnaissance for hosting a Winter Classic, Red Wings marketing director Rob Mattina just laughs. “We don’t know anything about that,” he says. However, Detroit and then Minnesota, possibly for the following year, are the two sites heard most often over the weekend.

Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, says the original idea for the Winter Classic was to play in Yankee Stadium, but that building has been and is committed to the late-December Pinstripe Bowl for another two years. “Citi Field is a possibility, and we’ve even been offered Michie Stadium at West Point,” Miller says.

10:45 a.m.
FUN WITH MORTAL ENEMIES: NBC wraps up a production meeting in a heated tent against the right-field wall referred to as The Lodge. About 40 people crammed inside the makeshift tent, including top NBC Sports brass Mark Lazarus, Jon Miller, John Miller and Sam Flood. The meeting, which started at 10 a.m., took on an added sense of urgency when the league decided, one day prior, to delay the game’s start by two hours, giving the network 120 extra minutes of programming to fill. NBC did it with an expanded pregame show featuring a mixture of interviews and pre-produced features. Flood led the meeting, going through everything that would be on-screen each quarter-hour, and he spent a lot of time focused on 4 p.m. ET, the time when Versus officially would be renamed NBC Sports Network. “This is a really important time for this company,” Lazarus says. Later, Flood drew laughs when he ended the meeting by saying, “Let’s have fun. It’s a celebration of hockey … but with two teams that hate each other.”

10:55 a.m.
REHEARSAL TIME: Two hours before NBC goes on air — four hours before the puck drops — NBC announcer Doc Emrick is sitting in the broadcast booth, headphones on, waiting to go through two hours of rehearsals. Clad in a Winter Classic coat and ski hat, Emrick, a hockey play-by-play man since 1973, says he’s not fazed by having to fill two extra hours in NBC’s pregame show. “It’s a performance business. You just go do it,” he says. Emrick’s preparation started when he arrived in the City of Brotherly Love four days earlier. “This event now has gotten to the point where I feel to do it right I have to be here for four days,” Emrick says.

11:30 a.m.
HBO’S SET-UP: On the visitors’ bench, an HBO Sports grip is strategically attaching microphones for the much-praised series “24/7.” “Those are our field operatives: There’s a crew of a cameraman, an audio guy and a grip,” says Dave Harmon, senior producer of “24/7.” “During the actual game itself, we’re going to have 12 of those positions around the whole rink.” In addition to those 12 microphones, HBO Sports shot the game with 12 cameras. “The planning for this started four months ago, when we started dealing with NBC and the league about where things are allowed to go,” Harmon says. “[On Sunday, Jan. 1], we started actually placing the things that were planned so long ago. It took about 36 hours to get the 12 cameras, 12 mikes, set up.” For Harmon, the Rangers-Flyers “24/7” marks an end to a whirlwind period that saw him produce 14 “24/7” episodes. “It’s been one long run of 14 crazy, wild rides,” he says.

12:15 p.m.
MillerCoors CMO Andy England talked
strategy outside the Molson Canadian tent.
Photo by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF

BEER BASH: Just outside a crowded Molson Hockey House bar on the spectator plaza activation zone, MillerCoors CMO Andy England is detailing the strategy that sees North America’s second-largest beer marketer attaching two brands to its NHL rights. During the game, Molson Canadian is on the boards, but Coors Light gets the media weight on NBC. “Hockey makes you think of cold and Canada, so that’s perfect for Molson Canadian, which is why the NHL is the program year-round. For Coors Light, it is about tent poles like the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game and the Stanley Cup,” says England, pausing to let a cart carrying numerous cases of his product into the tent.

The NHL is the first big property for MillerCoors after a nine-year association with the NFL, so England describes a strategy as one of growing with the NHL. “Building the playoffs into something like a two-month version of March Madness is something we have very much bought into,” he says. “You know as well as I do that the NBC deal is going to make the NHL a lot bigger, especially with a rebranded Versus.”

12:42 p.m.
Geico’s Bill Brower was on hand, though the Caveman wasn’t this year.
Photo by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF

CAVEMAN COLLOQUY: When Bill Brower, Geico’s director of advertising, is asked how important the Winter Classic was in the company’s recent three-year renewal of its NHL rights, he seems genuinely surprised by the question. “This was probably the most important element. It is their Super Bowl,” he says. Behind Brower, fans wearing both Flyers and Rangers jerseys compete in a Caveman Danceoff contest while others queue up to compete in a Caveman Shootout version of Score-O, the hockey promo that lets fans try to shoot a puck through a slot in a piece of plywood placed over a goal. Still other fans race to see who can put on hockey gear the fastest.

Like so many of the NHL sponsors trying to garner the attention of fans before the game, lead generation is crucial; entry to the contests is normally an email address and some basic demographic information. For Geico, lead generation is even more important. “We don’t have thousands of agents, and as a direct-response company, this is a way we can put a face on our brand,” Brower says. With the help of event specialist RedPeg Marketing, Geico hopes to collect in excess of 5,000 qualified leads over the three days of Winter Classic events.

If MillerCoors’ challenge is when to attach which brand to its sports properties, Geico’s challenge is keeping its popular lizard and Caveman characters on their own turf. “The Caveman really resonates with sports fans and college students. The Gecko is more universal, and we never mix them,” Brower says. While the Caveman received rock-star-like adulation from fans at the last two Winter Classics, in Philadelphia this year, his presence was restricted to imagery. “We just didn’t want to burn him out,” Brower says.

12:45 p.m.
Comcast-Spectacor President Peter Luukko and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
Photo by: ROD SNYDER

FLYING IN: Comcast-Spectacor President and COO Peter Luukko emerges from a meeting and checks his BlackBerry. Luukko’s eldest son, Nick, a defenseman for the University of Vermont’s hockey team, was recently hospitalized with an internal injury suffered in a game. Nick is arriving at the stadium to watch the Winter Classic with his father. Luukko wants an update on his son’s condition. Luukko says he will not spend this Winter Classic pitching new business but will instead treat the event as a way to strengthen relationships with existing partners.

1:10 p.m.
MORE OR LESS?: During a radio interview on Philadelphia’s all-sports 94WIP outside of Citizens Bank Park, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman succinctly delineates the pros and cons of a debate that has divided even those at the league’s highest levels when it comes to cashing in on the Winter Classic. “You look at the buzz and the great fan experience here and you want it elsewhere, so let’s do as many as it takes to make everybody happy,” says Bettman. “But the other school of thought says, ‘This is a very special event; why dilute it?’”

Those in favor of numerous outdoor games talk about a Stadium Series. Still, since every sponsor wants unique assets, it’s hard to find one who doesn’t feel that less is more. “Having one is the ticket,” says Phil Pacsi, vice president of consumer marketing at Bridgestone, title sponsor of the Winter Classic since its second year. “We want it to remain unique.” Adds Geico’s Brower, “My opinion is that this is the outdoor event. I don’t want to see any others.” Still, as MillerCoors’ England points out, there are differing viewpoints. “If you ask an American and you ask a Canadian that question, you will get completely different answers,” he says.

Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president of marketing, notes that putting on just one Winter Classic “is a herculean effort.” “So if we wanted to tour it like a rock show, it would mean a real staff commitment, but if that’s what it takes …” he says. “And you wonder if great markets like this one, Chicago or Boston [the 2010 Winter Classic host] should have to wait 10 or 15 years to get another one of these.” NHL sponsorship chief Keith Wachtel insists that some sponsors have already inquired about doing multiple outdoor games. “We are more than capable of doing more [games] from a sales perspective,” Wachtel says. “I would support more.” Luukko also supports additional outdoor offerings. “You could stage more [games] that could have the focus locally and regionally,” he says.

1:45 p.m.
The NHL’s Brian Jennings shows off one of the logoed soccer balls whipped up by Franklin Sports.
Photo by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF

WEATHER PERMITTING: After experiencing problems last year in Pittsburgh when the weather was too warm, NHL officials were giddy with the near-perfect weather in Philadelphia. While walking out to the field before the game, NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins pokes his head into the “weather room,” which featured two empty chairs by a set of computers. “Even the weather guys are on vacation,” he says, laughing. “They’re so confident, they’re not even here.”

1:54 p.m.
OUTDOOR HOCKEY, INDOOR SOCCER: On the long walk inside the bowels of the stadium, from the right-field foul pole to behind where home plate is normally situated, a bunch of Flyers players are warming up by playing soccer in the wide, concrete corridor. Down the hall, the Rangers are doing the same thing. Look closely, and you’ll see they’re using a soccer ball with Winter Classic logos made on a rush order by Franklin Sports especially for the players’ use. Every year, the NHL gets a little better at the minutiae in this detail-laden event.
 
2:10 p.m.
MSG’s Scott O’Neil, Comcast-Spectacor’s Peter Luukko, the NHL’s John Collins and Comcast-Spectacor’s John Page
Photo by: ROD SNYDER

BASKETBALL ON ICE: Collins is doing an interview on the field when MSG Sports President Scott O’Neil, clad in NHL gear, approaches. “When you see O’Neil with a league hat, you know we did something,” Collins jokes, referring to O’Neil as a “basketball guy.” O’Neil laughs, but he turns serious when talking about the Winter Classic. “As a visiting club, we had no idea the power and the influence that this event would have,” he says. “Winter Classic drives interest outside your core fan base. It gets you one concentric circle out from that diehard core.”

2:41 p.m.
LICENSE TO SELL: As someone who rose through the licensing side of the business, the NHL’s Jennings inherited a retailer’s level of caution when it comes to sales forecasts. Accordingly, in early December, Jennings was reticent to say that this year’s Winter Classic would eclipse last year’s record haul. But on the field just before game time, Jennings can’t hide his zeal. “Based on just two days here, we will blow it away,” he says. A subsequent visit to a Mitchell & Ness retro licensed apparel store inside the ballpark confirms his optimism. Exclusive name and number fleece hoodies for retired Flyers Bernie Parent and Eric Lindros are top sellers, and the Parent items are nearly gone before the third period. “It’s been a nonstop crush,” says Sean McKinney, president of Reebok’s licensed nostalgia sports apparel label. Neither in the Mitchell & Ness store nor within the flagship Majestic Clubhouse Store is there a sign of any merchandise bearing the logos of the MLB Phillies, the building’s usual tenant. “They cleared all that stuff out of here the day after Christmas,” says McKinney, with a laugh. The Majestic store is pretty well picked over when a 50-ish dad enters the park’s biggest merchandise emporium with his 12-year-old son in tow. “You don’t like bright orange?” he asks his son, gesturing toward the remaining Flyers gear. Clearly, they’d better shop elsewhere.

4:00 p.m.
NEW NET, TICK TOCK: At the moment that NBC Sports Network launches, NBC Sports’ top executives are in the bowels of the stadium, intently watching the switch on various TVs. Lazarus and Flood are in the production truck; Miller, Miller and the NBC Sports PR team are in the production trailer. An aura of celebration hangs in the air when the change occurs with no mishaps, even though the executives had to change programming on the fly. The Winter Classic’s delayed start-time meant that NBC Sports Network had to scrap its planned 30-minute postgame show in favor of a 90-minute live edition of “NBC SportsTalk.” “The NHL is our centerpiece, but we also made a big investment in MLS, Triple Crown and you’ll see a fair amount of Olympic trials,” Jon Miller says. “The formula will be one of live sports, news/talk/information and original programming. Those are the cornerstones of NBC Sports Network.”

4:16 p.m.
Bridgestone consumer marketing VP Phil Pacsi got a new campaign rolling.
Photo by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF

GETTING TRACTION: It is between periods, but in Bridgestone’s suite on the stadium’s Hall of Fame Club level, there are more eyes on a TV screen now than at all during play. That’s because the title sponsor of the Winter Classic is debuting an ad that will kick off a campaign culminating in two Super Bowl ads. Retail integration will include promotional “standees” at point-of-sale sites from this ad and replicas of the tire-like balls used in the ads. “The idea was to maximize everything by starting it here, where we are the title sponsor, and building momentum through to the Super Bowl, where we [title] sponsor the halftime show,” says Pacsi. Combined, it’s the biggest bet Bridgestone has ever made on sports, and if it doesn’t move the sales and awareness needle, someone may have to, er, re-tire.

Meanwhile, the title sponsor’s name is integrated well enough within the Liberty Bell that is part of this year’s Winter Classic logo that other sponsors are using it. That kind of event ownership and a sports-marketing budget that keeps growing is keeping them warm in the Bridgestone suite even when some of the windows are open to the cold.

7:45 p.m.
OPS MAN: A hot dog in hand, just outside the postgame interview room in the bowels of Citizens Bank Park, the NHL’s senior vice president of events, Don Renzulli, is all smiles. Renzulli has watched the game from a “command center” near the press box, barking out orders via two-way. Feeling good about another successful Winter Classic, he is asked if his staff could run multiple outdoor games. He gives a tentative yes, but says the league would need to lengthen the planning process and bring in more staff. “We could split up the key people and get them support,” he says. “We’ve been through five Winter Classics with the same people. They understand.”
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