In what many are classifying as a case of Gary Bettman attempting to kill the golden goose, the NHL has reportedly decided to go ahead with a plan to add five more outdoor games to the schedule for the 2013-14 season.
In addition to the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium between the Maple Leafs and the Red Wings, the league has also decided to award games to the Kings (vs. the Ducks at Dodger Stadium), the Rangers (vs. the Devils and Islanders in two games at Yankee Stadium), the Blackhawks (vs. the Penguins at Soldier Field), and the Canucks (vs. the Senators at BC Place).
The revelation that the league has decided to massively expand the outdoor slate was met with a torrent of comment, with most of it falling on the negative side. A fair argument can be made that by having an increased load of games in the elements will lead to the Winter Classic losing a bit of its luster as the league’s signature event, and fans and pundits alike have made that point with tenacity in the hours following the announcement.
There has also been a good amount of derision, and rightfully so, about the timing of games. Having back-to-back games for the Rangers at Yankee Stadium seems like a bit of overkill, as does the fact that one of them will be on a Wednesday evening presumably, and having three outdoor games in the span of five days in January also is a bit much for some palettes.
While these contentions all have validity, the league is making the right decision by expanding the schedule. The NHL has surely been pressured by its TV partners to introduce more outdoor games into the mix, and by making it a big series in several culturally significant venues, the league is doing itself a favor. Instead of piddling around with adding an extra game for the Heritage Classic or perhaps tossing in one other game on US soil, the league going for broke and really trying to maximize the exposure for the game is actually a very savvy move.
In addition to the increased TV revenues, the league is likely also trying to placate owners who want in on the action. The Rangers have been angling for a game for a long time, and the league responded with two contests. The Blackhawks have expressed interest in participating in another game, and the league has decided to pair up two of the league’s most popular franchises by uniting the Hawks with the Penguins. Finally, providing the viability of getting warm weather teams into the mix by including the Kings and Ducks could also be a huge boost to the league’s optics.
The only real quibbles besides the over-saturation argument is the exclusion of a team like the Boston Bruins, who certainly have the ability to draw significant TV audiences. Having a game between this team and the Montreal Canadiens would be an interesting one to stage at a place like Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, but the league could be holding that one in reserve. Another team that could feasibly get an outdoor tilt would be the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park, or potentially the Minnesota Wild at Target Field against the Dallas Stars in a nostalgia fest.
With those possible matchups in mind, the league could definitely make the Stadium Series an ongoing event, and one that could be beneficial to both the NHL’s pocketbooks, as well as in gaining the league some leverage in the sports marketplace. No other professional league in North America has the appealing ability to stage games in unfamiliar places, and the NHL is right to take full advantage of it.