Teams in the National Hockey League (NHL) have competed in 18 outdoor games since the beginning of the 2003-2004 season. The outdoor games were made popular by the ‘Cold War’ ice hockey game between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan in October of 2001. The game was hosted at Spartan Stadium and was attended by 74,544 fans, filling the venue to 103.4% capacity. It was a then-world record for the largest crowd at an ice hockey game. It would be over 9 years until the record would fall at the Big House(Michigan Stadium), a rematch in Ann Arbor that would raise the bar to 104,173 in December of 2010. The NHL would not break the record for the largest attended ice hockey game until 2014, when they would host their own game at the Big House. The NHL have spread these outdoor events out with 16 different teams hosting outdoor games and another 5 participating in these major events in 17 different venues (Yankee Stadium was the only repeat venue hosting two Stadium Series games in 2014) in order to maximize exposure nationwide and to provide different markets the opportunity to participate in this ‘experience’.
The NHL currently has three ‘series’ that take place outdoors. The three series are the Heritage Classic, the Winter Classic and the Coors Light Stadium Series. The first Heritage Classic was hosted on November 22, 2003 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton drew 57,167 even though it was -18 degree Fahrenheit. It was held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Oilers joining the NHL and the 20th anniversary of their first Stanley Cup. The success of this game would lead the way towards the planning of an annual game in time for the 2007-2008 season. The Heritage Classic has been hosted in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. The Heritage Classic occurs between two Canadian teams, and the Winnipeg Jets will host the next edition of the game.
The first Winter Classic took place between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills and drew over 71,000 fans. The game was hosted on January 1st, 2008 and would start a trend for the annual Winter Classic being held on New Years Day each year except for the 2011-2012 season because New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday (the 2012-13 season which was shortened due to the lockout, the game was canceled in November of 2012). This year’s Winter Classic will be the 8th edition of the game, with the Boston Bruins being the first team to host two Winter Classic’s (albeit at a different venue). The Flyers, Capitals, Blackhawks, and Red Wings have all participated in two Winter Classics.
Due to the overwhelming success of the Winter Classic, the NHL decided to expand the playing of outdoors games and introduced the Stadium Series. During the inaugural Stadium Series, four games were played including two at Yankee Stadium (the Rangers were the road team for both games with the Devils & Islanders playing the host in one a piece). In 2015, the NHL hosted one game at Levi’s Stadium in California and in 2016; they will play two games, one in Denver and one in Minneapolis.
The outdoor games provide a unique experience for the players and the fans. There are many variables such as the atmosphere, playing conditions and climate. The league has taken the opportunity to brand these events and generate additional sponsorship revenues as well. The Winter Classic had a title sponsor for their first event, signing a one-year deal with Amp Energy. Starting with the 2009 game, the Winter Classic started a long-term relationship with Bridgestone that was renewed during the summer of 2015. The 2011 Heritage Classic, the second in the Heritage Classic series after a 6 year hiatus, would set a then-NHL event record for both total sponsorship revenue and activation, with Tim Hortons serving as the title sponsor. The Stadium Series was introduced in order to capitalize off of the demand for these outdoor ice hockey games. In the first year of the Stadium Series, they were able to benefit from a title sponsorship that was part of the Coors Light seven-year, $375 million dollar sponsorship signed in 2011. The four Stadium Series games from 2014 generated revenues totaling $50 million dollars from tickets, sponsorship and other business. The expense to produce the four games was in the neighborhood of $35 million dollars according to Christopher Botta of Sports Business Daily. Within the same article, an executive with the Dodgers revealed that the revenue generated from the game hosted at Dodgers Stadium surpassed previous revenues of any event they had hosted by about 20%.
The NHL has found a niche with the outdoor game that they are able to satisfy in large pre-existing stadiums to bring the experience to tens of thousands of fans at one time. Some concern has been expressed over the frequency that these games have been hosted with, but after the bonanza that was 2014, in which 6 outdoors games were hosted, we have seen the trend slow down. The league continues to manage these events well and brand them within their respective series ensuring that every detail of these major events are managed similar to an all star weekend or Stanley Cup Final. As professional leagues look for external revenue opportunities that they can leverage, the Winter Classic, Stadium Series and Heritage Classic will continue to appear on the calendar with regularity for the NHL.