In 2007, when the NHL was planning its first Winter Classic outdoor game, neither the league nor media partner NBC knew what to expect.
"We didn't know if we could sell tickets or attract a TV audience," said John Collins, chief operating officer for the NHL, who along with Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports, is credited with being the major catalyst behind bringing the event to life.
As it turned out, more than 71,000 people attended the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2008, in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, setting an NHL record. And NBC garnered the highest rating to date for a regular-season NHL game since 1996.
"It snowed during the game, and the fans loved it, the players loved it and the TV audience loved it," said Collins. "We knew we had something."
The Winter Classic, title sponsored by Bridgestone, has been an annual event ever since, popular not just in each respective host city but also to a national TV audience. Five of the six most-watched regular-season NHL games in the U.S. to date in the past 37 years have been played outdoors, according to the NHL.
Next year, in addition to the Winter Classic in 100,000-plus capacity Michigan University Stadium on Jan. 1, the league will stage the Tim Hortons Heritage Classic on March 2 in Vancouver's BC Place and four more outdoor games under the umbrella Coors Light Stadium Series. One will be played in Dodger Stadium (Jan. 25), two in Yankee Stadium (Jan. 26 and Jan. 29) and the fourth in Chicago's Soldier Field (March 1).
Collins said the Winter Classic games have been profitable and expects the Stadium Series to follow suit. He said the goal is to add $1 billion in national revenue to the NHL.
"We are reaching not just core fans and consumers but casual fans," said Collins. "With the merchandise, marketing, tickets and exposure on NBC, it's like having another NHL franchise.
"This is not just about [title sponsors] Bridgestone, Coors Light and Tim Hortons," he said. "Pepsi, McDonald's and all of our corporate marketing partners look at cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as being important to their sales."
The fact that the two outdoor games in Yankee Stadium were scheduled for the week leading up to the NFL's Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium, home to the New York Giants and Jets, on Feb. 2, was a no-brainer, bottom-line business decision.
"We won't intrude on what the NFL is doing in New York that week," said Collins, "but we will take advantage of the attention for our league and our marketing and media partners."
The NHL said what also helped to drive marketing, media and fan interest in the expanded Stadium Series was the Winter Olympics. The Games, being played in Sochi this February, will air on NBC and its network of stations and will include an array of NHL players representing their respective countries in the hockey competition.
Like the NHL, NBC is supporting the Winter Classic and Stadium Series with a multi-platform marketing campaign. That includes a seven-part documentary series, "NHL Revealed: A Season Like No Other," described as an "all-access, behind-the-scenes look" at the teams involved in the outdoor games as well as the players who will be part of the WInter Olympics.
"The outdoor games present unique opportunities for the NHL, NBC and our marketing partners," said Collins. "And we will continue to look for new opportunities moving forward.
"The more exposure we give to the league, the more stories we tell, the more people we reach, will help to grow the business and make the sport more accessible," said Collins.