How Alternate Sites Can Lead to NHL Popularity Growth

From 1933 to 1994, the Green Bay Packers played at least one of their annual home games in Milwaukee. For years the move brought football to the most populous city in Wisconsin; a metropolis that greeted the occasion with eagerness and excitement. The move also expanded the fanbase of the franchise from the small town into the entire state.

The NHL Can Expand Their Popularity with Games in More Cities

Hockey is currently the fourth-most popular sport in America according to many databases. The NHL is constantly looking for prime opportunities to market the game. We have seen initiatives and strategies implemented with the intention of expanding the NHL platform and the popularity of the sport. I believe that there is a lot to be gained from a simple idea. Most, if not every team in the NHL, should play one home game at an alternate site or an arena in a different location each season. 

This might sound like a bad move but there are a lot of benefits. It’s hard to argue that the most popular regular-season game of the year isn’t the Winter Classic. The outdoor games in colossal stadiums have become a must-see, regardless of who plays. The Winter Classic and Stadium Series have become the “hot ticket” with fans craving the outdoor experience and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

Winter Classic
The 2014 Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs in the Big House in Michigan saw the largest attendance for any hockey game in the history of the game. (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

I’m not recommending that the NHL builds more outdoor venues and more hockey rinks for games. Instead, they should use existing arenas. The “big games” in the cities that are chosen will receive the attention and hype from the location chosen and will create a “big game” atmosphere. 

How the NHL Can Make This Idea a Reality

I don’t see every team wanting to play in other areas or cities. Teams that sell out every home game would likely refuse the idea. The smaller market teams, on the other hand, should certainly consider the idea, and so should many teams that view the opportunity to create and expand their regional fanbase. 

The Carolina Hurricanes were 30th in attendance percentage (percent of seats filled) in 2018-19 and the Florida Panthers were 29th (the Ottawa Senators were 31st in case you were wondering). For a team like the Hurricanes, why not play a game at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte or Phillips Arena in Atlanta? For the Panthers, why not play a game at the Amway Center in Orlando or even the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama? These cities already have large arenas and the infrastructure needed for an NHL game atmosphere.

Brian Pothier Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes have been one of the better teams in the NHL in recent years, but fail to draw the same crowds as the rest of the league. A game in Atlanta or Charlotte can not only sell out, but expand the Hurricane fanbase. (Courtesy Carolina Hurricanes media archives)

It wouldn’t just apply to the teams doing poorly in attendance. Think of the Colorado Avalanche playing one game a year in Salt Lake City or the Dallas Stars playing a game in Houston. Also, like the Winter Classic, the game can turn the city into the place to be, in a similar way to the All-Star Game. 

Why Would the Initiative be Significant?

I know that I’m a big hockey fan and might have a slightly biased opinion but if I found out that once a year my favorite hockey team was coming to my city, I’d be pretty excited and try to be the first to grab tickets. Even if I wasn’t a fan of the team, the idea of there being one game a year coming to the city would be more than an exciting draw. Like the Winter Classic, the game would bring with it hype and, in all likelihood, a sellout crowd.

Not only would the alternate arenas expand the fanbase into a nearby city, but it would also expand the popularity of the game of hockey. When I was a kid, after attending a game, I would be playing hockey for a week with the hangover of the game still lingering.

Cory Herschk youth development camp
Most kids start their NHL dream on local ponds hoping to become like the stars they watch. Games being held in these types of towns would only bring more enthusiasm to the youth hockey fans. (Brian Kunst)

One can only imagine the excitement that would come before the game started and the excitement when the game ended from the people that were in attendance.

The NHL Can Take Advantage of the AHL Arenas and Other Unique Sites

The alternate arenas don’t even need to be limited to one city per team. On the contrary, the NHL can take advantage of the idea and have games played in every major city in America if they wanted. The games have the ability to turn hockey into a nationally popular game. Many fans would suddenly be accessible to professional games with the alternate sites in play.

There are a handful of cities that are passionate about hockey. Some of those cities are nearby an AHL team but the population naturally focuses on the professional game. An annual game in Hartford, Connecticut, or Grand Rapids, Michigan would bring fans that feel distanced from the pro game, fully interested in the teams coming to their town.

Hartford Whalers Booster club
Hartford used to be one of the big hockey cities in the NHL. When the team relocated, the fans were left in the dust. The rare game can reinvigorate the fanbase. (AP Photo/Pat Eaton-Robb)

Likewise, the Kraft Hockeyville initiative displays the towns across America and Canada that are passionate and committed to their local hockey. The Kraft Hockeyville winners receive upgrades to their local venues and an exhibition game. The NHL can boost the winning prize, giving the competition victors one regular-season game.

Alternate Cities Can Expand and Reinforce the Hockey Fandom

This opportunity also allows for teams in Canada, that sell out every game, to bring the game to parts of the country that are exuberant about hockey but are far from an NHL team. One of the hockey writers suggested that the Canadian teams can appeal to the fan bases that live in nearby provinces of Canada. Provinces like Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia lack pro teams but the citizens love the game. Many great hockey players grew up in these areas (Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon are both from Halifax) and the people would love the game putting them on the map.

I don’t know if the NHL is going to adapt this idea (and I doubt they are reading this article anyway). It might be good in theory but terrible in practice if the technicalities don’t work or other issues arise. I would like the NHL to consider the idea and think of the opportunity that can be achieved from it.

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