The Winter Classic isn’t broken, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman claims there’s still an “insatiable appetite” for outdoor games, and the league has hung its hat on the New Year’s Day game as one of its hallmark events every season. It never will approach the NFL or NBA in terms of ratings, but the Winter Classic is still one the league’s biggest TV draws. And if the Winter Classic comes to town, you bend over backward to go.
The game itself doesn’t necessarily need fixing, and it will continue to do just fine as it’s currently constructed. But it can be better, especially from a TV standpoint, can’t it? If you’re a casual sports fan who wasn’t a fan of the Buffalo Sabres or New York Rangers, did you really care at all about Monday’s game? Did you even know it was happening?
If the NHL wanted to tweak the Winter Classic to make it an even better product for fans, there are a few changes that could be made to make a unique event more interesting and captivating.
Allow us to expand.
— Move the game to February
It’s easy for the NHL to say “The Winter Classic is New Year’s Day every year and that’s that.” Most casual sports fans know, at least in the back of their minds that the Winter Classic is played Jan. 1. But are they watching? The game gets lost in the New Year’s shuffle. You’re either too hungover to want to try to follow a puck through ridiculous shadows, or you’re too invested in the college football bowl games — especially when we get a New Year’s slate like we did this season.
I watched maybe 10 minutes of this year’s game mainly because there were just better things to watch, and I had to do some things before returning to normal life after a holiday break. Simply put, the Winter Classic was far down my to-do list Monday.
The solution is simple. Move the game to the Sunday after the Super Bowl. There’s no point in trying to fight with football — college or pro — for attention. You can’t win, and you won’t win. That’s OK. But give me the Winter Classic when I can fully devote my attention. When football ends, then it’s time to start devoting attention to the winter sports. There are a lot of hockey fans who don’t start engaging until February, so what better way to dive into the hockey season with the Winter Classic?
It’s also a couple of weeks before the NHL trade deadline, so it sets up the stretch run perfectly. And if the NHL someday decides it wants to combine the All-Star Game (scheduled for Jan. 29 this year) and the Winter Classic, well, there are worse ideas.
Sundays in February suck. Make the transition away from football a little less painless.
— The venue has to be unique or historic or both
Surely, Citi Field is a nice play to watch a baseball game. But it’s not even 10 years old. Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia, Gillette Stadium in New England, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh … they’re just kind of “meh” venues with no real history or panache. The venue is part of the whole package. Hockey at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park piques your interest.
When the NHL heads to Notre Dame Stadium next year, that will be worth watching, with Touchdown Jesus overlooking the action.
Let’s get creative with it. How about a game at Churchill Downs? The Yale Bowl. Lambeau Field. Talladega.
All of those are more captivating than Nationals Park.
— Get rid of the other outdoor games
Over the years, it certainly feels like the NHL’s outdoor experience is suffering from “too much of a good thing” syndrome. It probably won’t happen because hosting these games are cash cows for the league and its teams, but if we’re strictly trying to make the Winter Classic better, put it on a pedestal and don’t dilute the product.
— Make “24/7” great again
“Road to the Winter Classic” is still a TV show that exists, but it’s used far more as a marketing tool for the NHL. Bring us back to HBO’s “24/7” where we got unedited, on-ice and behind-the-scenes access to the teams. This is some of the best sports TV in the last 20 years, and it was a surefire way to make casual fans care about players and teams it otherwise wouldn’t.
— Give us rivalries.
— Try new things, and tell us about those new things beforehand
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the way hockey is produced and shown on TV in 2018. But with all the technological advances we have in TV production these days, isn’t the Winter Classic — and the challenges it presents from a TV production standpoint — the perfect place to experiment with new broadcast elements? Whether it’s camera angles or microphones or something else, the NHL and NBC should take some chances. Look how well-received the SpiderCam was for the NFL, and that was a happy accident. But it also would help if the network and league touted that new technology before the broadcast with hopes of getting people to tune in out of curiosity.