Will NHL Overkill its Outdoor Game Plan?

With the entire NHL on hold during early January, the planned Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings was scrapped. One year later under Michigan snowfall, the game took place in all its glory before 100,000+ fans. But that's not all — this year, the NHL unveiled the Stadium Series, with outdoor games sprinkled throughout North America.

It's hard to say if there's too much of a good thing here. The Winter Classic itself drew sparkling TV ratings and earned the league a profit of $20 million while maintaining the league's presence on HBO with its popular 24/7 series. Tickets for the other stadium games have faced mixed reactions, and even the Canadian Heritage Classic didn't see the level of interest as one might think.

What's the sensible path forward here? The league is probably very aware that there's a fine balance between the Golden Goose that is the Winter Classic and overly saturating the market demand. On the other hand, pretty much every team in the league has expressed interest in hosting the Winter Classic, so the Stadium Series is like the honorable mention prize to satiate the interest. The Winter Classic isn't going anywhere, that much is sure. But the league's continuation of the Stadium Series will probably depend greatly on the performance on a pair of those games, most notably the January 29 game at Yankee Stadium between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders and the January 26 game at Dodger Stadium between the Anaheim Ducks.

The Yankee Stadium games are a bit of an anomaly, as it's the second game in that venue. The first game sold out handily; the second faced more of an uphill battle to get tickets. In LA, tickets were notably discounted in late December to help move more volume.

What are the variables the NHL is looking at here? It may not bas obvious as you think. The litmus tests here involve:

* Can you play two games in a market?
* How will the ice hold up in a warm environment?
* How will non-traditional markets respond?
* What can ticket prices be set at in non-traditional markets?
* Will the out-of-market public care about these games?

It seems logical that the NHL will pull back on the number of outdoor games next year, but just how the whole thing is executed remains to be seen. This year's Stadium Series feels like a grand experiment, and the overall results — particularly on those four questions — will dictate what we see.

Since coming back from the 2004-05 lockout, the league has made plenty of smart decisions in maximizing revenue and creating excitement around the game. The talk of outdoor game-fatigue is prevalent enough that the league's head honchos have to be aware of it, and decisions won't be made rashly. However, there's still plenty of money to be made, so expect multiple outdoor games again next season. How many and where? We'll know more in a few weeks after Los Angeles and New York have a go at it.

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