This past New Year's Day the NHL staged it's latest version of "Can You Top This," with the latest installment of the Bridgestone Winter Classic. Despite the rain in the forecast, this year's game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals again served as a launching point for the sport, the league and its partners. We asked NHL COO John Collins his thoughts on the Winter Classic, it's brand extensions and what it means not just to hockey but to sports business overall.
Q: The origin of the Winter Classic is interesting. The 2003 outdoor game that Edmonton put on was the inspiration... a big event strategy was part of your vision for growing the business side of the NHL... NBC offered a New Year's Day window and that collaboration led to the game, right?
A: The idea was a great one and a true collaboration, but the idea needed a business model driven by sponsorship/licensing, big gates and operational expertise. That's what the league has brought together these past three years. The Winter Classic has been successful for all kinds of reasons, starting with our fans, who have responded to the concept in a big way. NBC has done a great job giving it a big-time feel. Madison Avenue loves the Winter Classic. The last two years, the Blackhawks and Bruins did a great job finding new ways to involve their communities and make it bigger than the year before. Pittsburgh is doing a great job this year. The possibilities are unlimited.
Q: One of the biggest additions to this year's event is the HBO series. What does that mean to hockey?
A: Ross Greenburg and I worked together on the original Hard Knocks concept when I was at the NFL, so I knew how compelling this could be and how well this could translate to the NHL. The fact that we are following these two teams during the regular season, something that's never been done, seeing the ups and downs that professional athletes experience, seeing how much they care and the chance to get to know them off the ice makes this the ultimate reality show. The show is providing us with a tremendous opportunity to expose the NHL to a different audience outside of our core fan base and it has exceeded our expectations.
Q: There will be a second outdoor game in Canada this year... the Big Chill at the Big House was a great success and there are companies out there trying to do outdoor games in the minors. What keeps the Winter Classic a step above everything else?
A: The Winter Classic has become a fan favorite among casual and avid fans alike because of its iconic venues such as Wrigley, Fenway and now Heinz Field, and because the energized environments, unpredictable weather and throwback nature make it so unique. This year's Winter Classic is the most anticipated yet because we have such a great matchup. The game features two of the biggest stars in the league in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin -- two guys who happen to be fierce rivals -- playing for teams that don't like each other all that much and are both Stanley Cup contenders. The HBO reality series, "24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic" has added to the anticipation by doing a great job telling the stories of these teams. All of the elements are there to make this year's game something truly memorable.
Q: Pittsburgh and Washington, from the top of the organization on down, seem to be the model franchises for the game. How important is the buy-in from ownership in selecting teams and the city?
A: You're right in saying that Washington and Pittsburgh are model franchises. Both organizations understand how important it is to be connected with their communities and their fans and have done a tremendous job on and off the ice.
This Winter Classic has been embraced by the City of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania in a big way. A key objective of ours is to leave a lasting legacy in each community that hosts the event and make it about more than just the one game. In Pittsburgh, we have a fan festival and an outdoor rink open to the public outside Heinz Field, we have the alumni game, with Mario Lemieux,on December 31, the Stanley Cup will be on display and importantly, we're teaming with the Penguins to benefit a local children's hospital. Overall, the economic impact on Pittsburgh is $23 million and it exceeded $36 million in Boston.
There is huge demand among our clubs to host the Winter Classic and we have a number of intriguing options to consider. Commissioner Bettman has been on record as saying that Ted Leonsis and the Capitals will host a game in the near future and there are many other franchises that will be great hosts down the road.
Q: Alex Ovechkin continues to emerge as a marketing star despite the Caps' recent on-ice issues. How do you think this game will help elevate his brand as an international star to the casual fan?
A: Alex is one of the rare athletes who transcends his sport. One of the benefits of the HBO show and all the buzz around the Winter Classic is that the casual fan and the non-sports fan alike get to see what a dynamic personality Alex is.
Marketers also recognize Alex's appeal. Reebok has featured him in a global campaign; Gillette uses Alex as an endorser and Verizon will debut a spot with him during the Winter Classic. I believe that's only the tip of the iceberg with him.
I also think that the rivalry between Alex and Sid has served to elevate both players. Given that both of them are in their early twenties, we should be enjoying this rivalry for years to come.
Q: The NHL has been the leader among the four major team sports in digital activation and this year's game will bring together a host of platforms to enhance the fan experience. What else will fans get to experience from a digital standpoint starting with the Winter Classic and then going into the playoffs?
A: We have been at the forefront of technology and digital advances and that has a lot to do with our fans, who are the most tech-savvy of the major sports leagues. There is a pent up demand among hockey fans for NHL content and our job is to super serve them and connect them to the game across multiple touch points.
That also goes for the Winter Classic, where we're doing of a number of cool things. One innovation I'm particularly excited about is we're becoming the first league to integrate Facebook into a broadcast with a Watch and Win promotion that is being jointly promoted across Facebook and our platforms. Fans watching the NBC broadcast will have a chance to win a Honda CRV among other prizes.
NHL.com will stream much of the festivities around the event including the alumni game. The live web-cam that shows the rink being built at Heinz Field is incredibly popular.
You'll continue to see more of these innovations role out throughout the year as we head towards the playoffs.
Another new wrinkle this year is the addition of 20 hours of Winter Classic programming on the NHL Network, which you'll begin to see having a bigger presence.
Q: How have sponsorship sales been and what are some of the interesting things sponsors are doing?
A: The interest among corporate North America has been overwhelming. NBC sold out far in advance and a record number of commercial units have been taken by our NHL partners. Total revenue is up 20 percent and any possible sponsor-able element has been sold. Two weeks before the event, Winter Classic jersey sales surpassed the 38,000 mark. The event has become such an important part of our business from a sales, marketing and merchandising standpoint.
Bridgestone has been a terrific title sponsor the past three years. They activate in a number of ways, most notably onsite through their popular "Slapshot" activity at the fan fest. In addition to Bridgestone, Bud Light, Reebok and Dick's Sporting Goods also have a big presence at the Winter Classic and help make the fan experience so special. And both Verizon and Geico are debuting hockey-themed creative during the game.
Q: Does it surprise you at all how important this one regular season game has become to the business of the NHL?
A: It's rare that a regular season game in any sport attracts national attention the way the Winter Classic does. It's great to see how quickly the Winter Classic has become one of the most anticipated events on the national sports calendar and a New Year's Day tradition of increasing magnitude and buzz.
From a business standpoint, including the creation of big events as part of our strategy to drive growth has worked well. We've been able to elevate the passion our fans feel for their favorite team to the national level, and in so doing attract new sponsors who are finding creative ways to engage with our fans, who represent a young, tech-savvy demo.
A total $330 million in new sponsorship revenue has been added over the last three years -- driven in part by the Winter Classic and it's helped the NHL achieve a 66 percent increase in marketing revenue over the same period.
Q: Much has been made of the innovations in synthetic ice surfaces recently. Is there any thought in bringing the outdoors game to the warm weather cities where the game needs a boost?
A: There is the technology available and the potential to bring the Winter Classic to a warmer climate but we are probably a ways away from that happening.