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Volume 23 No. 23
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How long will NHL fans, sponsors remain outdoors enthusiasts?

Terry Lefton
A year ago at this time, there was no hockey of the NHL variety. Strangely enough, after a lockout-plagued season that saw the league cancel nearly 42 percent of its regular season, our biggest question is, How much NHL hockey is enough?

We are referring to the NHL’s growing manifesto of games played al fresco. The roster of NHL outdoor games swells to six this season, beginning Jan. 1 with the Winter Classic featuring Detroit and Toronto at the University of Michigan’s Big House.

A 2001 Michigan-Michigan State game, which drew 74,454 fans to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, was the catalyst that set hockey marketers thinking about the revenue potential of stadium-sized crowds. Accordingly, this NHL season sees a Jan. 25 Kings-Ducks game at Dodger Stadium, a Jan. 26 Rangers-Devils contest and a Jan. 29 Rangers-Islanders tilt at Yankee Stadium (designed to grab some of the Super Bowl spotlight); a March 1 Blackhawks-Penguins game at Soldier Field in Chicago; and the March 2 Heritage Classic of Senators-Canucks at BC Place in Vancouver.

The Kings-Ducks game set for Jan. 25 at Dodger Stadium will be one of six outdoor games in the NHL this season.
Surely with the kind of revenue shortfall produced by the lockout, we understand the outdoor land grab. We also know that the real answer to how many outdoor NHL games are enough won’t be answered until they are all over. That doesn’t mean we won’t pose the question to the hockey cognoscenti.

On the league side, word is that demand for outdoor hockey has not waned.

“The impact locally is off the charts,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “Markets where we’ve held [outdoor] games tell us they don’t want to wait 15 years for another one, and markets that haven’t had one, want one. … We’ll debrief after the sixth and figure out what’s appropriate.”

The Winter Classic is close to a sellout at Michigan Stadium, which holds more than 115,000 for football. Tickets to the other outdoor games haven’t gone on sale yet.

From the sponsor constituency, “The appetite by our partners to support these games and, more importantly, activate against them is there,” said Keith Wachtel, NHL executive vice president of global partnerships, adding that the big on-ice positions were sold out to a bevy of incumbent league partners, including Verizon, Discover, McDonald’s and Honda.

“There’s no doubt that locally, outdoor games are still a huge thing,” said former NHL executive Ed Horne, now a senior vice president, Americas, at IMG. “And the NHL has been in search of a unique identity outside of Canada for quite a while. The outdoor games have provided that.”

Still, there are those who wonder if what has been a unique proposition won’t become ordinary.

“How many outdoor games is too many? We think that line has already been crossed,” cautioned a top marketer at one of this year’s hosting teams.

Added former NHL Enterprises President and current Octagon Worldwide CEO Rick Dudley, “Six is too many. It shouldn’t be every day. I started in this business with Pete Rozelle. He had the best instincts of anyone. He was all about ‘Less is more,’ so people would always crave your sport. Now, sports is 24/7, 365, and you wonder where all that goes.”

It’s like the dilemma you face when opening the biggest box of Godiva chocolates. How many is too many?

“Local support for these games will still be there,” said Michael Neuman of Scout Sports and Entertainment, which counsels NHL sponsor Geico on its sports marketing efforts. “What we’re all interested to see is whether the TV numbers hold up across that many outdoor games.”

However, NHL CMO Brian Jennings reminded us how 2014 will be unique.

“You’ve got the Super Bowl in New York and all the attention that will bring,” he said. “We’ll shut down our season for 17 days for Olympic play and have outdoor games as a way to re-enter the market. Having both of those opportunities was just too good an opportunity to miss.”

> COMINGS & GOINGS: Peter Arrichiello is joining Clear Channel, to sell its new rights to New York Mets games across WOR-AM, and other cross-platform sales across local Clear Channel stations, Z100, WKTU and LITE. Arrichiello, who will be a senior account executive, has also worked for Tour GCX, Mueller Sports Group, and Cohn & Wolfe. … Emil Calcano is joining Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, as the organization’s first senior director of sports marketing and business development. HSS’s sports inventory includes deals giving it official hospital designation with the New York Giants, Mets, Knicks, Red Bulls and Liberty; sponsorship of the PGA of America; and an official medical services provider deal with the NY/NJ Super Bowl Host Committee. Most recently, he was director of team partnerships at Madison Square Garden, and he earlier worked in sponsorship sales with the New York Yankees.

Terry Lefton can be reached at