The first outdoor NHL Winter Classic, presented by Pepsi's Amp energy drink, featured the Pittsburgh Penguins against the host Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 1, 2008, at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It drew attention, but more for its odd setting and for what some NHL naysayers saw as a sense of desperation by the league to keep from slipping on the ice of its own miscalculations. But the game was literally a perfect storm for the league and NBC, not just because players and hockey fans were genuinely excited about it, but also because a heavy snowfall that covered 71,000-plus fans and players made the game look otherworldly. "The snow certainly enhanced it [and] made it magical,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman later observed.
Coming off the inaugural event, the NHL and NBC embraced the fact that a previously flat period on New Year's Day was now attracting marketers, viewers and media attention. "In the middle of the football season, the football playoffs and the Bowl season, everywhere I went for the next week to ten days, somebody would have something to say about it," NBC commentator and analyst Bob Costas said regarding the first Winter Classic in 2008 during a media event for the 2011 Winter Classic, which will be played at Heinz Field on Jan. 1 between the host Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. "Seeing hockey that way, it just went beyond the importance of one game. It became a tradition in one year."
Iconic settings added to the fervor, with the second, Jan. 1, 2009, at Wrigley Field (Detroit Red Wings vs. host Chicago Blackhawks); and the third, Jan. 1, 2010, at Fenway Park (Philadelphia Flyers vs. host Boston Bruins). In 2009, Bridgestone came in, and still remains, as title sponsor, and a growing number of league marketing partners ramped up their activation. According to Phil Pacsi, vp-marketing for Bridgestone, "[The Winter Classic] is huge. It is a crown jewel in the NHL's arsenal of events. It has quickly become the new standard for entertainment for a sports event on New Year's Day."
The league has wisely expanded the window of access opportunity that marketing partners have to fans and consumers. Heinz Field will host several local youth hockey games as well as an NHL legends game in the days prior to the actual game, accompanied by a fan-fest laden with NHL marketing partners.
The NHL said that sponsorship revenue for the 2011 Winter Classic was up about 20% over last season. NBC, which has seen its Winter Classic broadcasts post the highest regular season NHL ratings in 30 years, said that a record number of league partners will run ads during the game. Pittsburgh-based Dick's Sporting Goods has opened a pop-up, 5,000-square-foot store in the city's historic Strip District, exclusively for official Winter Classic merchandise. Verizon ran a "Rule the Ice VIP Sweepstakes" offering tickets to the game.
Discover is activating as the league's official card with multi-media marketing and special offers for card members. Reebok, the official outfitter of the NHL, has special jerseys for the Capitals and Penguins. Dick's and other marketers also were part of an NHL Winter Classic Truck Tour that traveled more than 1,400 miles spreading the word. And HBO focused its cameras on the game and star players Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin via a four-part "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic."
Marketers are already salivating over the fact that New York is among the leading sites to host the 2012 Winter Classic.
NHL outdoors dates back to 2003 when the Heritage Classic was played in Edmonton between the host Oilers and Montreal Canadiens. Due to numerous requests from NHL teams and marketing partners based in Canada to host an outdoor game, the league has revived the Heritage Classic, which will be played on Feb. 20 (Calgary Flames vs. host Montreal Canadiens) at McMahon Stadium. Tim Hortons is title sponsor and a bevy of NHL marketing partners, including Kraft Canada, Hershey Canada and LG Electronics, will support.