By now, the Winter Classic hype machine is in overdrive. If you go to NHL.com, you'll be inundated with features, videos, and other little nuggets of information you may or may not care about. That's the thing with the Winter Classic; for many hockey fans, they probably have no vested interest in the game but it's such a visual spectacle (and kudos to NBC for strong production values and smart camera direction) that they'll tune in just to see it.
At least that's how I felt. With each Classic, I've always been rather blah on the even until the actual gameday. Then I inevitably wind up tuning in, especially last year when I could see it in HD for the first time.
Now, with Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin -- erm, I mean the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Washington Capitals -- upon us, the NHL is pulling out all the marketing stops possible. They've got their most-recognizable mainstream player vs. their second-most recognizable mainstream player; it's a manufactured event in a marketing executive's wet dream.
So once Sid vs. Ovi passes, where can the NHL go from here? The first one got ratings due to the novelty factor while the second one had the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks -- the league's most bankable TV-ratings teams. The third one saw ratings dip despite two reliable TV-ratings teams in the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. The problem is that with the Flyers and Bruins, they may have strong hockey history and reliable markets, but they have difficulty extending far past that reach. That's why the 2010 Winter Classic created good but not great ratings and buzz.
Ratings and buzz. That's what this is all about. And the quiet reasoning behind the Sid-Ovi match-up is to max out the ratings and buzz, thus maxing out the NHL's bargaining posture for the next American TV contract. If the ratings hadn't dipped for the last game, then the league might have gone with a different strategy, but you can bet that once those numbers came in, the league's brass went for an all-in philosophy to get that contract at the end of the rainbow. The Winter Classic is just as important as the Stanley Cup playoffs when it comes to the league's TV contract, so putting on a show with the most possible hype is the best bet for the league saying "You want this, now pay for it" at the bargaining table.
Of the typically American-friendly teams, the New York Rangers are really the only team left to not play in a Winter Classic (the Colorado Avalanche have lost their TV luster in the post-Joe Sakic/Peter Forsberg era). You might as well pencil them right in now, but what could possibly match the mainstream buildup to Crosby/Ovechkin? Obviously, when the Rangers had Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, they certainly came with much more mainstream marketability. Hockey fans may appreciate the talents of Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist, but they won't have the Q-rating appeal of Crosby.
Ok, so this may really be the cynic's perspective, but it really seems like the NHL has backed itself into a corner in an effort to create the biggest spectacle yet for the biggest Versus/ESPN/Fox bargaining posture. There are only so many teams that have the ready-for-primetime appeal of the Red Wings or Penguins. It's becoming a rock-and-a-hard-place situation. You'll burn out audiences with the same handful of teams over and over but the mainstream appeal won't come without those teams.
The alternative is for the league to throw caution to the wind once they get their TV contract and start looking outside of the old standbys. A while ago, I suggested that the previous season's Stanley Cup winner also earn the right to play in the Winter Classic as a means to spread the love around. At this point, it really does seem like some sort of mechanism has to be put in place in order to keep the teams fresh.
What can the NHL do? Here's a novel approach: since the next TV contract is bound to be for at least three years, and possibly even as long as five, that means that at least the first year or two allows some leeway with teams that are picked. That means that next year's Winter Classic can perhaps dip into a little bit of the unconventional -- maybe the Los Angeles Kings at the New York Rangers -- before going back into the inevitable ratings-booster teams.
After all, if this is just about a TV contract, once the battle has been won, the league can think outside the box for at least a little while. Will they have the gall to do it? Think about this logic -- if they repackage the same teams over and over, they'll inevitably burn out both the mainstream fans and hockey fans. By picking some slightly outside-of-the-box teams, they'll at least maintain some level of freshness in the match-ups and create some new exposure, even if it takes a ratings dip for a year or two.
One thing's for certain, though. In the year before the next TV contract is up, expect the Winter Classic to go back to the old reliable ratings selection. Does that mean a Detroit/Pittsburgh Winter Classic in a few years? Despite it being multiple go-arounds for each team, I wouldn't be surprised if that happens.