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Volume 20 No. 42
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Michigan aims to set Winter Classic standard

With more than 100,000 fans expected in attendance, a pair of Original Six franchises, and new event highs being established for sponsor activation and credentialed media, the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium is poised to be the biggest of them all.

And likely always will be.

“It’s the biggest event we’ve ever staged,” said NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins, who is widely credited (along with NBC programming chief Jon Miller) for developing the New Year’s Day event for the league and its broadcast partners. “Unless the Big House in Michigan ever gets bigger, it will likely be the biggest hockey event ever.”

The Jan. 1 game between Detroit and Toronto (1 p.m. ET, NBC) is expected to draw more than 107,000 fans. Representatives from Guinness World Records will be on hand to confirm whether the Winter Classic moves past the 104,000 fans who went to Michigan Stadium in 2011 for a Michigan-Michigan State game to set a new standard for attendance at a hockey game.

NHL Chief Marketing Officer Brian Jennings was at the league’s first outdoor regular-season game, in 2003, when the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium in the Heritage Classic. He marvels at how big the event has become.

“Back then, the Oilers controlled the event, so I was actually able to just enjoy it in the stands with clients and friends,” said Jennings, who has been with the league since 1990. “That was an amazing event, and you wondered at the time if it could be topped. Now you see what’s happened since.”

The Winter Classic has become so popular since its 2008 debut — with tickets selling out almost immediately — that it has spawned the Coors Light Stadium Series this season, with two games at Yankee Stadium and one each at Soldier Field and Dodger Stadium. There also is the Tim Hortons Heritage Classic on March 2 at BC Place in Vancouver, pitting the Canucks against the Ottawa Senators.

But it’s the Winter Classic that NHL executives view as the signature regular-season event. The two weeks of events before an expected total crowd of more than 250,000 — with events extending to include college, junior hockey and NHL alumni games at Comerica Park in Detroit — are expected to provide an economic stimulus of more than $30 million to Michigan.

Ticket prices range from $89 to $279, with the bulk of the seats in the $129 to $149 range. According to Jesse Lawrence, CEO of event ticket search engine TiqIQ, the average price on the secondary market as of last week was $264.

For the Philadelphia-New York Rangers Winter Classic in 2012 at Citizens Bank Park (a game played before a sold-out crowd of just under 47,000), the average price on the secondary market was more than $500.

“The size of this year’s event is keeping the average ticket low,” Lawrence said.

More than 400 press credentials have been approved by the NHL. That number, according to the league, is a new high for a Winter Classic.

Of course, the NHL will have its own media properties engaged as well, including (with blogs from players of both teams), NHL Social (with a 10-day countdown to the event featured on Instagram) and NHL Network, which will have 10 announcers on-site for coverage beginning Dec. 30.

More than two dozen league partners, also the most ever for a Winter Classic, will activate at Spectator Plaza prior to the game. Event title sponsor Bridgestone aims to use the event to promote its Blizzak cold-weather tires.
“Blizzak sales are key to our fourth-quarter performance,” said Phil Pacsi, vice president of consumer marketing and training for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations. “The Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is a great platform for us. We’ll look at how many quality brand impressions we generate around the event. This helps us determine if our brand message is making an impact with hockey fans.”

Adam Dettman, director of sports and entertainment marketing for MillerCoors, said the beer company views the NHL Winter Classic as “one of the tentpoles of our alliance partnerships.”

“It drives brand engagement among avid NHL fans and the casual sports fans who pay closer attention to these big events,” he said.