Monday, January 10, 2011

Can the NHL All-Star Game Survive?

By Mike Chen

The Winter Classic has proven to be an overwhelming success for the NHL, and the biggest eyeball magnet on its calendar outside of the Stanley Cup Final. And because of that, the All-Star Game — already regulated to something meaningless enough to skip during Olympic years — loses even more of its luster. Yes, that no-contact game of shinny among the league's wealthiest players seems to carry less weight year after year.

With that in mind, one really has to wonder what the purpose is for the All-Star Game. Most fans approach it with a mild level of interest, even though everyone seems to enjoy the skills competition. In general, fan voting is more about bragging rights on message boards, and it has little to do with the actual popularity of the event. Even the wrinkle thrown into this year's game — the so-called Fantasy Draft — seems like it will do little to benefit the quality of the game.

The old answer used to be that the All-Star Game was used as a schmooze fest for sponsors, but even that function has been transferred to the Winter Classic. It may be worth something to fledgling TV carrier Versus, but it's not going to make a dent in NBC's ratings; hence, why the whole thing was relegated to cable in the first place.

So what do you do with the All-Star Game? These types of festivities used to carry more mystique among fans back when you rarely got to see players from other teams and conferences. But now, between online highlights, Center Ice packages, local cable broadcasts, Versus games, and the additional games that FOX Sports and Comcast SportsNet channels pick up, hockey fans have plenty of ways to see their favorite players. The novelty simply isn't there anymore. Major league sports have faced this dilemma for a while now, with baseball tinkering the All-Star Game to assign value to the outcome.

With the big outdoor game coming roughly at the halfway point in the season, does it make sense to tack the all-star festivities on to the heels of the Winter Classic? Here's the thinking ... we can have the WInter Classic as a regular season game on whatever day of the week that New Year's Day falls upon, the all-star combination of a skills competition and shinny game could still take place a day or two later, with the preference to be a shoehorned Friday-Saturday event.

What benefit does this have? For one, it essentially creates a combined week of hype and buzz instead of the separate events where the Winter Classic clearly is the prettier sister. By opening the game up to a stadium capacity, the casual fan can now purchase a ticket (the current incarnation has attendees comprised of season ticket holders and sponsors). The visuals of having the league's best and brightest in the great outdoors are a great marketing ploy. And the pace of the All-Star Game opens itself to the wide outdoor camera shots that currently can't keep up with the action of a real game.

The downside of this is that the All-Star Game — currently used as an award for new buildings — may have limited locations to pick from. For fans, missing out on the actual game may not be a big deal but the annual fan convention that goes on through all-star weekend is a hockey lover's paradise.

It's one of the few ways to keep the event while maximizing the uniqueness that comes with Winter Classic venues; also, it acknowledges its place as secondary on the NHL event calendar. It works out for everyone without devaluing the Winter Classic.

Of course, this can all be adjusted based on the NHL's willingness to test unconventional markets. The other idea is to do away with the All-Star Game completely, but taking the Winter Classic and extending the built facility's usage to an entire week seems to be the proverbial two birds with one stone.

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