Commentary

NHL Stadium Series: Big Win For Hockey

Some things in life are so assumed to be associated with each other that it’s almost impossible to imagine them apart – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, peanut butter and jelly, Chicago and deep dish pizza, palm trees and hockey. Ok, maybe not so much on that last one. But, if the NHL has its way, and if the success of the most recent Stadium Series game is any indication, hockey – and even outdoor hockey – could become a southern California mainstay.

This was a calculated and, yet, genius-strategic move from the NHL, years in the making. Not only in executing the expanded Stadium Series games in a Winter Olympics blackout year, and a year after a disastrous lockout, but in scheduling the games to happen around major cultural events: New Year’s Day and the Super Bowl, when sports are as top-of-mind, as ever for the casual fan.

There are those who believe that increasing the number of outdoor hockey games being played each year, in both college and the pro ranks, will erode the novelty and spectacle of the event category. The law of diminishing returns will kick in and people will stop caring, right? The numbers don’t support that claim, not yet at least.

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According to Nielsen, the Stadium Series matchup between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils averaged 2.08 million viewers and drew a 1.3 rating on NBC – making it the most-watched and highest-rated single NHL regular-season game ever on the network, excluding past Winter Classics. The game also generated an impressive 5.1 regional rating in New York, which matched the highest rating in the Big Apple for any NHL game ever broadcast on NBC. The high-water mark it tied? Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Kings and the Devils in May 2012.

And in Los Angeles – on a Saturday night, in a city full of distractions – the Stadium Series drew a 2.4 local rating, by far the highest-rated regular season game for the network in that market. 

So, is it working? The decision to go to a six-game slate of outdoor games this season, just one season removed from the near-disastrous lockout, and a year into the league’s pledge to earn an additional $1 billion of cumulative revenue over the next three seasons, was viewed as an ambitious one. But, three games into this years’ series, it’s hard to argue with the numbers.

Thus far, the NHL has been able to pack more fans into more seats for these games. The Winter Classic in Ann Arbor saw more than 100,000 hockey fans pack the Big House for a memorable matchup between two original six teams. The first two games of the Stadium Series were equally successful, with over 100,000 fans between the two bi-coastal games played in Los Angeles and New York City, according to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. It is hard to argue with the sight of seeing more fans in the seats.

The fans have been tuning in as well, as evidenced by the ratings cited above. These games have broken local records for the NHL in key markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and Toronto (during the Winter Classic). It certainly looks as if that trend will continue with the remaining games. While the NHL is certainly excited about this, NBC has to be even more ecstatic, with their partnership paying off big time in these major markets.

Sure, these games are a great way for the league to introduce casual fans to the excitement of a professional hockey game. But, what the Stadium Series has done, more than anything else, is create a captivating platform for sponsors on which to activate. In L.A. alone, a packed and engaging pre-game tailgate hosted activations from brands including Discover, Advil, Coors Light, Can-Am, Honda, Upper Deck, McDonald’s, Verizon and GEICO. All of the activations were focused on consumers, and made sure that their time spent at the Stadium Series was that much more enjoyable. 

As the NHL continues to battle the NFL, NBA and MLB for the attention of fans and sponsors, the importance of uniquely engaging, non-typical venue events cannot be discredited. On paper, a hockey game played in Dodger Stadium, with a KISS concert, sandwiched between USC marching band performances and beach volleyball may seem like something of a silly idea. But it’s good fun for the casual fans and great value for the involved sponsors – and that’s a big win for hockey in America.

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