For years, hockey suffered from a lack of identity outside of its core base. The knock was that it was too cold, too expensive to play, too violent, had too much equipment, the players were not savvy enough for marketing opportunities, it didn't translate well to TV etc etc etc. ... NASCAR came and grew, soccer is on the rise, Mixed Martial Arts jumped up, boxing rose and fell ... yet hockey and the NHL still held on to its core base and remained as one of the top four sports in North America, never challenging consistently the top three of baseball, football or hoops, but never too far away in interest from those right on its tail. Could it grow? How could it capture a larger casual fan base? Well recently, the NHL has looked inside and found ways to cultivate its core fans while still searching for the big thing to drive it upward. The league has embraced and invested in its digital platforms as well or better than any other sport and appears to have finally found its signature annual event to build upon ... the Winter Classic, which this year will be in Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.
So as we look toward 2010 and the great events upcoming ... the Vancouver Olympics, the World Cup ... it is worthy to start with what is one of the best marketing and branding platforms conceived and launched in recent years ... the NHL Winter Classic. Usually it takes years to develop a signature event for a sport or an entity, and it becomes even harder to expand upon that event and continue to give it buzz, added brand value and new partnership opportunities once it is launched, but the Winter Classic continues to grow and add elements as hockey's signature event, an "unofficial" start of both winter and hockey brand awareness that the sport needs to continue to develop. Now there was certainly nothing wrong with the first two versions in Buffalo and Chicago, one played upon the other to add even more elements to make the game so successful and even spawn other events such as the KHL All-Star Game in Red Square last year, and the NBA and WNBA efforts to play games outdoors (with a bit less branding success). However this year's event in Boston has taken on a much larger window and given the public and brands more access for events and experiences than ever before, a very smart move for the NHL.
With the rink up earlier, more digital involvement, the inclusion of legends in a signature first puck drop before the holidays, and even forward looking ties to the Olympics, this year's Winter Classic will have legs well beyond the New Year's game. NBC's use of the game to really start pushing the brand value of Olympic hockey for February (despite the hot/cold stance by the NHL on future commitment) is also very important for all parties, and the high quality and buzz surrounding the Winter Classic in Boston can pull casual fans now who may come back to watch NHL on NBC leading up to and through the Olympics.
Whereas before New Year's Day was always just college football. the NHL is making it more and more about hockey, (especially with the BCS game in the distance), and by doing so they are able to build tremendous extended equity for the sport.
Will there be multiple city outdoor games in the future? Maybe. Is there a danger of stretching the value of the game too far? Perhaps. However one thing is for sure. In a time where events are overhyped, lack true value for brands, change format and lose value, the NHL found and grew a signature that made great sense and has become a lynchpin for future growth and interest in just three short years.
Hockey fans rejoice, brand marketers enjoy, and casual fans, tune in. You will probably see all that's great about the sport, and hopefully will come back for more.