Buoyed by the success of the six outdoor games held this season (two Stadium Series tilts in New York and one each in L.A. and Chicago book-ended by the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day and the Heritage Classic in Vancouver March 2) the NHL announced today that it would move to a totally outdoor schedule starting in the 2015-16 season.
“Fan response has been fantastic, and TV ratings have been through the roof,” NHL president Garry Betmann said in a press release. “And while we recognize there will be some challenges we feel the upside is too great to not give it a shot.”
With a pre-season that starts in mid-September, an 82-game regular season, and playoffs that run until mid-June, the biggest challenge the NHL faces in playing outdoors is the huge seasonal variation in weather. That’s magnified, of course, by the diverse locales of the 30 NHL franchises, with some, like Edmonton and Winnipeg, being in frigid northern climes while others, like Florida and Phoenix, are in the Sun Belt.
To meet that challenge, Betmann said, the NHL will steal a page from the bird Anaheim’s team is named after — the Ducks — and implement a “migrating schedule”.
“At the start of the season, teams in the north that face the prospect of harsh winters would play a lot of home games,” said Betmann. “Then as the weather gets colder we’ll shift to southern teams having lots of home games. Then in the spring we’ll start moving north again and even things out.”
The plan, Betmann asserted, would maximize the league’s ability to provide good quality ice for players while also minimizing fan discomfort.
“Fifteen years ago this wouldn’t’ve been doable, but ice-making technology has come a long way since then,” he said. “It will cost more, admittedly. But we also envision major revenue opportunities.”
The most lucrative would be greatly expanded attendance. Not all lease arrangements have been finalized, but teams will play in baseball and football stadia with seating capacities in the 40,000-75,000 range compared to the 18,000 seat arenas they play in now.
Merchandizing would also receive a boost with fans in colder months being able to purchase team parkas, ski pants, boots, mitts, balaclavas and whatnot to stay warm; and t-shirts, shorts, sandals, bikinis and sun-block to keep cool and UV-protected in warmer, sunnier months. Concessions will also be tailored to seasonal tastes: with heartier fare in fall and winter; and lighter, fresher fare in spring and early summer.
After a couple of years of playing an exclusively outdoor schedule, the NHL has plans to resurrect the “Heritage Classic”. Only with Heritage Classic 2.0, as Betmann dubbed it in the press release, marquee match-ups between big-market teams would be held indoors at arenas like games are now.
“That way, we’ll continue to honor hockey’s proud history as an outdoor and indoor sport,” said Betmann.
It seems like a risky venture to us here at Prairie Dog. But like the proverb says, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” So I guess we’ll see.