In 2012-13, the NHL’s second lockout in seven years—and the third since 1995—cut the season down to 48 games and appeared to be the final setback in a plan to attract fan and marketing interest beyond the league’s self-proclaimed nucleus of hard-core followers.
However, one season later, the league embarked on what executives called “our most ambitious season ever,” moving from two outdoor games—including the Bridgestone Winter Classic that has been an annual New Year’s Day event on NBC since 2008—to six.
Beyond the Bridgestone (with the Detroit Red Wings hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs) and the Tim Hortons Heritage Classic on March 1 in Vancouver’s BC Place (the hometown Canucks host the Ottawa Senators), four new outdoor games have been added under the umbrella of the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. The Los Angeles Kings will host the Anaheim Ducks (Jan. 25) in Dodger Stadium; two games in Yankee Stadium hosted by the New York Rangers (New Jersey Devils on Jan. 26, New York Islanders on Jan. 29); and on March 2, the Pittsburgh Penguins head to Soldier Field to play the Chicago Blackhawks.
The season also encompasses the Winter Olympics (Feb. 7-23), during which the NHL will suspend play and send an array of stars to represent their respective nations in the hockey medal competition, led by 2010 gold medal winner Canada and silver medalist USA.
HBO will debut 24/7 Red Wings/Maple Leafs: Road to the NHL Winter Classic on four consecutive Saturday nights beginning Dec. 14.
The NHL and NBC are supporting the Winter Classic and Stadium Series with a multiplatform marketing campaign. That includes a seven-part documentary series, NHL Revealed: A Season Like No Other, described as an “all-access, behind-the-scenes look” at the teams involved in the Stadium Series outdoor games as well as the players who will be part of the Winter Games.
The jewel events began last weekend with the Discover NHL Thanksgiving Showdown, which saw the Boston Bruins host the New York Rangers on NBC.
John Collins, chief operating officer for the NHL, and Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network—the men who, beginning in 2007, are credited as the main catalysts behind the league’s strategy to play games outdoors—recently answered some questions about the six outdoor games, the Winter Olympics and NHL marketing.
How important are the Winter Classic, Heritage Classic and Stadium Series to the growth to the NHL?
John Collins: For the NHL and the NHL Players Association, this is a huge year. It’s been a process for us. In 2006, we laid out a plan to build the league on a national scale. We were a $2.2 billion business, but less than 6% of that came from national revenue. We didn’t have much of a national halo.
We’ve been focused now over the last six years in growing our global scale and business. We brought in our blue-chip partners to help grow the league. We believe the Stadium Series and outdoor games can add more than $1 billion in revenue to the league and give us what would be more than $4 billion in total revenue. Our aim is to make national revenue a bigger piece of the NHL pie, as much as 25%.
How confident is the NHL that it has made the right decision?
Collins: We are excited about the games and the players who will be involved. We want to make it as big as we can. We want to reach not just core fans but casual fans, which is where we can grow the game.
We love the game, we admire the players and we want to take that and make it as big as we possibly can. We want to make it big through the events we do. We want to make it big through the programming we do. It’s not just enough to feed the core hockey fan, but we want to expose the sport to casual fans as well and continue to grow the game. That’s been a huge part of the partnership with [the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.] and it’s been a huge part of the NBC relationship.
Can you talk about the importance of NBC in the NHL’s strategy this season and moving forward?
Collins: A huge part of this is our relationship with NBC. This is a unique year. We have the Winter Classic and Heritage outdoor games, the four games in the Stadium Series in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. And we have the Olympics, which will involve many of our players representing their [respective] nations. And we are building it together with NBC.
It’s a huge story line for how we want to profile the game and how we want to profile the players. CBC and NBC have come on board, as they always do, to make some of this a reality. We’ve been able to pull together really an all-star lineup of executive producers to tell the stories that are going to come out of a hundred days and nights of shooting throughout this process.
Jon Miller: I don’t think there are many leagues out there besides the NHL—and really with John’s leadership and vision—that could have put this all together in this short period of time. When the Winter Classic first happened, this was something he had thought about and we had talked about for a long time, about bringing games to stadiums. The natural progression is bringing fans inside the ice and letting people see what is going on, which is what NHL Revealed will do.
How important are the Winter Olympics to the NHL and NBC strategy?
Collins: When we went to the [International Olympic Committee] with the plan, they basically said, ‘If CBC and NBC are comfortable with this, then obviously we’re comfortable with it.’ It created a really unique opportunity to do this. Through all the debate about whether we should be [in Sochi] as a league or not be there: We’re there. It’s a great platform. The [challenge] was how we could use [the Olympics] to grow the sport and grow the league brand but also to keep the momentum going in our business. Our thought was, we should try to take better advantage of it while we’re there.
Ross Greenburg, who was president of HBO Sports from 2000-2011 and oversaw HBO’s initial 24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, is the executive producer for NHL Revealed. Beyond that, how would you compare HBO’s 24/7 NHL series to NHL Revealed?
Collins: HBO does a phenomenal job. But [24/7 viewership] can be like that Wilt Chamberlain 100-point game [in 1962] where everyone says they were there. HBO’s distribution in the U.S. is what it is: Nowhere near the firepower of what NBC’s going to bring to [NHL Revealed]. And their distribution in Canada is less than 1 million homes, certainly far less than what the CBC brings to [NHL Revealed]. Being able to use these two networks to push it out is a game-changer.
Miller: The main similarities are that they are both all-access-driven shows about hockey. 24/7 is about two teams and the players on those teams. NHL Revealed will follow all nine teams and the Olympics. We are having NHL marketing partners involved in the docu-event, but we also are looking to bring other marketers into it. For NHL Revealed, basically what we’re looking at is 100 days and nights of shooting. This stuff works very well for us. You have seen our commitment to the outdoor games and the Olympics.
Collins:24/7 is a chronological, intense look at two teams that has a beginning, a middle and an end at the Winter Classic. The coaches in 24/7 tend to be the focus because that’s who controls much of the action and what goes on. I don’t think that’s expected to be the case here. We’re going into [NHL Revealed] with a view toward saying we want to make the players the focus. And because we have nine teams, and all these various events with the Olympics in the middle, you’re not going to get that same chronological countdown.
What were the pros and cons in the NHL’s decision to add more outdoor games?
Collins: In July and August, when we were looking at the schedule, we saw a great opportunity to add more outdoor games. We have great rivalries, and we see these games as being great events in each geographical region. This allows us to get into some markets on a national basis more than one time during the season, and allows us to get back into well-traveled markets. What it does in terms of hockey is it brings great rivalry games to a national audience and also builds the rivalry in each area.
Miller: We did have a moment where we said, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’ But we’ve had many more ‘Ah-ha, we got it right!’ moments.
How important has the Winter Classic become to reaching new fans and marketers and growing the league?
Miller: Any time we can showcase these players without their helmets on is a great opportunity. Because of the Winter Classic, the NHL now owns New Year’s Day. When we talked about adding the Stadium Series, the locations were very integral. Yankee Stadium can’t host a Winter Classic because of other scheduling [the New Era Pinstripe Bowl college football game is scheduled for Dec. 28], but it can be part of the Winter Classic. Having Yankee Stadium, Chicago’s Soldier Field and Dodger Stadium as part of the Stadium Classic is really amazing.
Collins: The Winter Classic is a jewel event. It gets bigger every year. We learn new things each year. It exploded onto the landscape.
What made that first game work for you?
Collins: There was concern going into that first game in Buffalo [played on Jan. 1, 2008]. We didn’t know if we would sell enough tickets [to fill 71,000-seat Ralph Wilson Stadium]. We didn’t know if we would get people to watch on New Year’s Day, where college football has been the staple of TV viewing.
I remember heading into a meeting with [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman and NHL and NBC executives about a half-hour before the game. The last I had heard, we had sold about 40,000 tickets, which would have made the stadium about half-empty. But when I asked [for an update] about ticket sales, they said, ‘They’re all gone. They’re all sold.’ So that was great news to tell the commissioner. It snowed during the game, and the fans loved it, the players loved it and the TV audience loved it. We knew we had something.
Will the NHL try to take advantage of the global focus on New York that will take place because of Super Bowl XLVIII, which is being played the week after the two outdoor games in Yankee Stadium?
Collins: We won’t intrude on what the NFL is doing in New York that week, but we will take advantage of the attention for our league and our marketing and media partners.
Will the NHL attempt six outdoor games next year? Collins: I don’t think anybody sees us doing six outdoor games a year going forward. Not six, but more than one. There is no shortage of cities that want to host outdoor games, and there is no shortage of marketers that want to activate behind it.
How do you address the critics who claim that six outdoor games in one season could dilute the product?
Collins: We don’t look at it as dilution on the national level if that’s the issue. We look at what it does in the local market as far as lighting up hockey and what it does in terms of converting new fans to become hockey fans. The more exposure we give to the league, the more stories we tell, the more people we reach, will help to grow the business and make the sport more accessible. These are big events in a long regular season. Each event creates its own opportunities. And we certainly will look for new opportunities.
How much of an impact will shows such as NHL Revealed have on attracting fans and marketers?
Collins: Growing up in NFL Films [where Collins worked for several years beginning in 1989 prior to joining the NFL front office; he eventually joined the NHL in 2006] and seeing how they helped to shape the image of the NFL, I’ve come to see so many more opportunities to celebrate the game, to expand the game than ever before. So many people in the U.S. didn’t grow up with the game or watching the game. Events such as the Winter Classic and Stadium Series have a huge ripple effect on the hockey culture.
What is your overall assessment of the outdoor games?
Collins: These games are profitable. We are reaching not just core fans and consumers but casual fans. With the merchandise, marketing, tickets and exposure on NBC, it’s like having another NHL franchise. This is not just about [title sponsors] Bridgestone, Coors Light and Tim Hortons. Pepsi, McDonald’s and all of our corporate marketing partners look at cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as being important to their sales.
We have the building blocks in place to grow the sport—social media, technology, NBC and marketing support. From the research we did, we know that what people love about the NFL are the same things that people love about the NHL. We’re coming up on [the league’s] 100th anniversary and yet, there’s so little storytelling. We cover the games but we don’t have a chance to kind of slow it down and celebrate the moments, and that’s what I think we’re starting to do here.
This interview was reprinted with permission of NYSportsJournalism.com.