Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rangers vs Flyers Only Real Choice For 2012 Winter Classic

With the 2011 Winter Classic just two days away it is not too early to start thinking about where the 2012 version of this annual event will be held and the implications that choice could have on various aspects of the sport.  Each year the event has become bigger and bigger after starting in Buffalo, moving to Chicago, then Boston and now Pittsburgh.  The next logical progression is to bring the game to the New York City area with one of the leagues original six teams, the New York Rangers as the host team.  New York makes tremendous sense because it gives you a vast array of different match-ups you could market both in terms of team rivalries, the sport and geographic considerations.

The Winter Classic has become the NHL’s signature regular season game in terms of audience and maybe even more importantly revenue.  Just yesterday Chris Botta over at AOL Fanhouse talked about the evolution of the event and revenue stream that has come out of it for the NHL.  From the article:
According to data provided by the NHL, it appears Burwick was on to something. League sponsorship revenue is up $330 million over the last three years, with the signature New Year's Day event as the driving force. All broadcast spots on NBC are sold out, with NHL partners buying 37 units -- up from 28 last year. Geico and Verizon have created hockey-centric spots, a rarity for major companies in the U.S. The Winter Classic gear by Reebok (knit hats, scarves, workout shirts) is such a massive revenue generator -- 38,000 jerseys have been sold as of this week -- Collins refers to the merchandising as "our 31st team." HBO's four-part "24/7" documentary is bringing the NHL closer to the casual fan. Projected revenue for the 2011 Classic is up 20 percent from last year's game between the Bruins and Flyers in Fenway Park and more than 200 percent over the 2008 game in Buffalo.
Speaking of HBO 24/7 having just watched the third episode the series leading up to the Capitals Penguins game all I can say is that I wish HBO covered the NHL in their next TV contract and that I want more 24/7, including if HBO and the NHL were willing a similar type event for the playoffs as a whole or just the finals series.  As much as many fans might not like to admit it the real reason the NHL got HBO to sign on to do 24/7 at all was because of the match-up of Ovechkin and Crosby.  What we have now though because of the exposure HBO has given the game beyond the normal NHL fan is an opportunity to expand the marketing of the game past just Ovechkin and Crosby and back to the overall quality of the game.  The problem is you need something large to draw the attention of HBO again to continue their willingness to be a part of the package. 

I believe New York gives HBO that kind of potential draw given the city itself and that the team has remade itself from one that relied solely on big name stars to a homegrown club improving by becoming a single unit instead of a collection of individuals.  That said the Rangers do have an interesting group of engaging personalities in the locker room like Sean Avery, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky while behind the bench John Tortorella is always entertaining whether you agree or disagree.  Along with the personalities you have star quality in terms of Henrik Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik with rising players with Marc Staal at the top of that list.  On the merchandise side, I believe given the global reach of the New York Rangers brand it is tough to fathom them not only sustaining the merchandise sales but increasing the reach of the game, especially if the right match-up is involved.  For both HBO and the NHL the match-up will be critical to the success of any event involving the Rangers. 

For many there is a natural inclination to keep the game a New York game and pit the Rangers against either the Devils or the Islanders, but with the struggles of both clubs this season I do not see that as a viable option and is probably too narrow for the league as a whole.  There are four match-ups that can appeal to the NHL on differing levels in terms of an opponent for the Rangers, though one stands above the rest.

The best option I believe is playing against Philadelphia as it has both a team and city rivalry aspect to the game which will draw out a level of intensity to the game that probably has not been seen in any of the previous match-ups other than Detroit/Chicago.  In Philadelphia you have a team that went to the Cup finals last season, is among the favorites this year and boasts an extremely young and talented roster with marketable players like Mike Richards, Chris Pronger and burgeoning star Claude Giroux.  In terms of 24/7 there are plenty of characters on the team that could make for entertaining television and a look at the New York/Philadelphia dynamic both on and off the ice as well.  The drawback is that Philly was just in the game against Boston, though so was Pittsburgh when they played Buffalo in the inaugural event and that did not disqualify them from making a second appearance.

Playing against Boston has many of the same positives as Philly with a possibly larger city vs city dynamic and the original six component, but possibly less intense being non division.  The main drawback is also the same drawback as a match-up with the Flyers.

Playing the Los Angeles Kings would give the NHL the ability to bring in a West Coast team that would never host a game due to the weather, and also give a tip of the cap to the history of the first NHL outdoor game just over 20 years later as the game took place Sept. 27, 1991, which took place in Las Vegas.  The Kings are a very talented team with marketable talents like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty and New York against Los Angeles brings ratings in just about anything they do and will certainly sell merchandise.  The negative is there is little on ice history to the rivalry, so some of the bad blood between the teams and fan bases would not be there like with other match-ups.

Playing Montreal would give the NHL the ability to market the game as an original six match-up and against the most successful NHL franchise.  This would allow the NHL to include a Canadian team which it has yet to do in the previous four incarnations of the game.   The match-up would oppose the second and third most valuable NHL franchises according to Forbes, but there is a reason the NHL has yet to include Canadian teams in the Classic and that is because the ratings do not crossover and ratings are what drives advertising dollars.  Besides the NHL will tell you there is already the Heritage Classic for teams north of the border.

The biggest impediment to the Rangers getting the Winter Classic for 2012 is the venue.  If Yankee Stadium was available I think this would already be wrapped up but because of the commitment the stadium has with the Pinstripe Bowl that is not a possibility.  It has recently been said the NHL is considering both Citi Field and the New Meadowlands for potential sites for the Classic.  Citi Field is not really a viable candidate for the game, but while there are complications to using the Meadowlands (having to move two NFL teams for two Sundays) and it will not have the same mystique as using Yankee Stadium it is a very viable option for the game; similar to that of Heinz field this year.  The stadium is brand new, state of the art along site and goes along with Gary Bettman previously saying that football stadiums often offer better viewing for the hockey events; especially in the lower sections.  The capacity at the stadium is 82,500, which while not the Big House at Michigan, would be the largest capacity of any of the host sites the NHL has used thus far and offers the NHL the ability to one up the NFL who is afraid to schedule their biggest game for the NYC area.

Factoring in all the potential sites and match-ups that could be viable for the NHL in the 2012 Winter Classic the best solution to advance the NHL and this game in particular is New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers at the New Meadowlands stadium.  How could HBO possibly turn down the chance to follow Tortorella, Avery, Pronger, Carcillo around to see the next crazy thing that is going to come out of one or all of their mouths?  How great would a Rangers-Flyers alumni game be with Messier, Richter, Leetch, Graves and more taking on Lindros, LeClair, Brind'Amour, Hextall, Tocchet, Kerr and any of the Broadstreet Bullies that still wanted to still go?  How great would it be filming Christmas and New Year's in New York?  It is clear the only choice is Rangers vs Flyers.

Tell me your thoughts on where you would like to see the game and who you want in it.