As 2020 nears its close, the new NHL season still appears in doubt, with reports that it may start in mid-January. As a result, teams and the league are considering any last-ditch ideas to help save the season.
Reports earlier in the week stated that a few NHL teams are considering playing multiple outdoor games this season as a way to garner some in-person attendance while the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to bleed into next year. Initial reports indicated that four teams — the Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and Pittsburgh Penguins — were considering the outdoor concept. But Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic revealed that the Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators were also interested.
For Carolina in particular, the idea makes sense, but there are some cons to go with the pros.
Where and How
Typically, outdoor NHL games take place in a nearby football or baseball stadium with an open roof.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Carter-Finley Stadium sits across a parking lot from PNC Arena, just a short walk away. The stadium’s nearly 58,000 capacity, which typically houses North Carolina State football fans, provides plenty of space for a sparse crowd to social distance. The location also makes perfect sense seeing as how the Hurricanes are still scheduled to host the 2021 Stadium Series at Carter-Finley in February, barring any coronavirus setbacks.
The move for outdoor attendance is permitted in North Carolina, legally speaking. Governor Roy Cooper gave the green light for sporadic attendance for events with large venues, notably allowing a crowd at Carolina Panthers games in Charlotte.
As for the logistics of holding multiple outdoor hockey matchups, LeBrun stated that Carolina is considering buying its own refrigeration system instead of relying on the league’s outdoor game infrastructure that involves weeks of work to transform a football stadium into a hockey rink.
Why Do This?
The reasons are simple as to why the Hurricanes, and the league as a whole, would consider going through all this trouble for outdoor games instead of opting for games without fans. The first motive is obviously financial.
Despite lucrative television deals signed in the last decade, the NHL still relies on ticket sales and in-person revenue for a large proportion of its income compared to other sports. According to Statista, NHL gate receipts from the 2017-18 season accounted for 37% of total revenue, compared to 27% in the MLB, 22% in the NBA and 16% in the NFL. Depending on market size, teams can earn between $1.5 million and $3 million per home game, according to an article by The Athletic.
Another reason for playing outdoor games is for the fans.
The Hurricanes are one of six NHL teams that have yet to play an outdoor game since it was established in 2003. A unique event like this would give fans excitement for a season that promises to be tumultuous. In past years, the Winter Classic — and similar outdoor contests — have proven to be a ratings success, topping 8.2 million television viewers in 2014, a North American record for a regular-season game. A flurry of outdoor games could galvanize would-be fans to watch the game and allow the organization to grow its fan base, even if only a small fraction can attend.
Every radical idea is going to have its downsides. For one, hosting multiple outdoor games in an environment where the home team’s players are acclimated could provide an unfair competitive advantage for the host team.
There is also the problem of cost and lack of flexibility.
The manpower, resources used and building process for the event is typically acceptable when there is one or two a season. Adding several games in various markets would most likely spread the league’s resources thin and possibly result in severe issues such as the ice not being adequately maintained or lousy weather. The league also cannot sustain many changes in the schedule during a condensed season, and outdoor matches open up more possibility of that happening.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is reportedly also skeptical of the concept for fear that having so many outdoor games would diminish the spectacle that the annual Winter Classic has become and thus ruin the allure in future seasons that are (hopefully) pandemic-less.
Sacrifices will need to be made, of course. That just seems to be a sign of the times right now. But the idea will only come to fruition if the league, and the participating teams, are confident in it being a success. Right now, though, any idea seems better than nothing.
Covering the Hurricanes for THW. University of Florida alum. Former sportswriter with The Alligator, ESPN Gainesville and Drafttek.