Understanding why the NHL won't change its outdoor game recipe
Now that the new slate of outdoor games has been announced, cue the groaning about the same teams getting games... And then take a minute to understand the business success that the NHL is sticking to.
Next season's slate of outdoor games, including the Winter Classic, have all been announced; four games in total. The four match-ups are Edmonton Oilers at Winnipeg Jets, Detroit Red Wings at Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis Blues, and Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins. You'll notice that it's some of the same teams and even the same match-ups that have occurred over the past eight years of outdoor game events. Cue the groaning and complaining from fans and media about participation repetition. But when you take a step back and view it from the league's perspective, it becomes easy to see why: Follow the dollar signs.
Unless otherwise noted, numbers such as for attendance and ratings is only for regular season outdoor games.
Why the Money?
The NHL runs on money. They're a business after all, and business decisions and practice revolves around potential profit. Everything they do from the way the league promote the sports, the playoffs and its players, sells advertising, tickets, and merchandising. Everything. All of those things and more go into what's referred to as "Hockey Related Revenues" or HRR. The outdoor games are no different as income generated by those games go toward HRR. Why is HRR important you ask? Well, that money is split between the owners and the players by way of the salary cap. The salary cap for the next year cannot be determined until the HRR revenues are counted up.
For the league, the owners, and the players, higher HRR means more money around the league. It means a higher salary cap which means bigger contracts for players. It means more money paid out to the owners who are all business people. Everyone has a stake in it. When you start to look at the outdoor games through that lens, the league's decisions start to make more sense.
Let's go back and look at the history of the outdoor games first and then follow the money.
According to Wikipedia the first NHL outdoor games were played by the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins in the mid-1950s. However, those were exhibition games against non-NHL teams. In September 1991, the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings played the first outdoor game between two NHL teams in Las Vegas of all places. That was also an exhibition game held during the preseason.
The first regular season game was in November of 2003 between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers. The first Winter Classic was played January 1st, 2008 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres. The Winter Classic has continued as a modern tradition by the NHL on New Year's Day since, with only the 2013 Winter Classic missed because of the 2012-13 NHL lockout.
After having a second outdoor game in 2010-11 to go with the Winter Classic, the NHL greatly expanded outdoor play during the 2013-14 season with six outdoor contests and followed with two games and three games in the next two seasons.
Including the announced games for 2016-17, Chicago has had the most appearances with five, followed by the Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins with four appearances each. The Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers follow with three appearances. The Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Washington Capitals all have two appearances each. Tweleve teams have one appearance each while seven clubs have never participated in an outdoor game.
The largest arenas in the NHL have a capacity of just over 20,000 including standing room space, topping out with 22,428 for the United Center in Chicago. The smallest arena is the MTS Centre in Winnipeg that seats 15,294. For perspective, including standing room capacity (which is shown as 0 on Wikipedia), Amalie Arena ranks 12th in the NHL with a capacity of 19,092. In contrast, the average attendance for outdoor games is 56,670. The lowest attendance was 38,112 at Fenway Park in Boston and the highest was 105,491 in Michigan Stadium.
It's easy to see that these games bring in a lot of people. With it also being a premium event, that means premium ticket prices. Many of these games have been held in either professional baseball or football stadiums as well, meaning luxury suite options that can also be sold at premium rates with thanks to the premium nature of the games.
Eyeballs are an important factor to making money. These are the people back home for the visiting team and across the North American continent that will be watching the game broadcast. The more eyeballs, the more the league can demand for advertising. It's the same premise as the NFL with the Super Bowl. It is one of the most watched programs on TV every single year and with that number of eyeballs, the NFL and its broadcast partners are able to ask for high prices for advertising both on the field and during commercials.
Let's just take a look at the Winter Classic ratings since that's often the prime outdoor event with the best ratings with help from its normal New Year's Day positioning, marquee match-ups, and greater advertising effort by the NHL.
The 2016 Winter Classic had a sharp downturn with only 2.8 million viewers, but overall the Winter Classic averages just over 3.85 million viewers. To put that into perspective, that is just 1 million less than the average Stanley Cup Finals television ratings since 2008. Also consider that The NHL on NBCSN ratings average just over 350,000 viewers over the past five seasons.
So you're looking at these outdoor games getting almost ten times the viewership over other nationally televised regular season games. They compete in number of viewers with the Stanley Cup Finals and even exceed the viewers of some individual Stanley Cup Finals games. More eyeballs, more money.
Arizona, Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay; what do all of these teams have in common? They're recent expansion clubs and none of them have appeared in an outdoor contest.
When the league started expanding in the 1990s, they added the San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Minnesota Wild. In addition, the relocation of multiple clubs took place: The Winnipeg Jets to Arizona, Hartford Whalers to Carolina, Quebec Nordiques to Colorado, Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, and 90s-expansion Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.
San Jose, Los Angeles (Anaheim), and Dallas are in the top 10 of US media markets by size. Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Miami are in the top 20. Raleigh (Carolina) is the 25th largest, Nashville is 29th and Columbus is 31st. As for the Canadian markets, Ottawa is the 7th largest Canadian market and would be 54th in the United States. Winnipeg is the 9th largest Canadian market and would be 79th in the US.
Do you see a pattern? The NHL consistently targeted large media markets for expansion. Atlanta and Houston are the only top 10 markets without NHL teams while Seattle, Cleveland, Orlando, and Sacramento are the only top 20 markets without franchises. While the NHL targets larger markets when growing the league, that hasn't always generated lots of eyes right away. These US markets as far as hockey is concerned are still immature with a couple exceptions in Los Angeles and Minneapolis/St. Paul. With those markets still maturing, it's no surprise that the expansion teams make up the bulk of the zero-appearances crowd.
But it's not fair!
Well, I can't really disagree with you on that. The NHL does a very poor job of marketing smaller teams and star players from those franchises. A good recent example was immediately following the World Cup of Hockey initial roster announcements. The Tampa Bay Lightning led the way with 10 players named to rosters. On Facebook, the NHL promoted the Chicago Blackhawks for the 9 players on their team selected. Again, follow the money. Chicago is going to put more eyeballs on that piece then Tampa is. More eyeballs, leading to greater revenue generation.
For the foreseeable future, the league is going to continue to follow the money. They'll continue to put the same teams into the outdoor events and promote them because they know that's the recipe for them to generate cash. Meanwhile, they'll mix in one or two new teams each year as we've seen with the 2016-17 announcements where Winnipeg and St. Louis will get their first outdoor games. All I can tell you is to have patience, save the moaning and groaning as all it's going to do is raise your blood pressure on something that you cannot change. And when your team finally gets into an outdoor game, have fun.