Few sports today are universally liked, let alone loved. The NHL’s annual Winter Classic has been a rare exception.
The Boston Bruins players arrived at Fenway Park to face the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday wearing classic high-stirruped Boston Red Sox uniforms. Penguins were outfitted like the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates. Wearing his cap and varsity jacket in tweed flats, the coach looked like it had been ripped from the pages of a black-and-white yearbook.
With snow on the field and the Green Monster in the background, fans enjoyed 60 minutes of hockey just like they were supposed to. Outdoors on the ice during the day, freed from most of the digital trappings of modern indoor gaming. As a visual spectacle, The Winter Classic is a high-budget, unscripted period piece.
It’s easy for a special event to feel gimmicky, but it’s almost impossible to make it feel authentic. Successful. Why does it work and can MLB reverse engineer the formula?
This formula is based on several truths.
1. Sports are nostalgia.
In 1998, the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals staged “Turn Ahead The Clock” night at the Kingdom. The following year, 20 more teams entered the promotion on his one night. The player wore a flashy “futuristic” uniform that aesthetically represented his imaginary 21st-century hellscape.
This promotion failed for a simple reason. Sports help remind an adult of the early years in his own life, if not the lives of his parents and grandparents, and even if the hands of the clock go forward, his status in the world predates his working memory. It cannot be strengthened. Turning back the clock, when executed well, makes us all warm and fuzzy. Winter Classic finds new and fun ways to do it every year.
2. It’s just one game.
College football boasts more nostalgia than any major North American sport. At some point, the NCAA chose to either use postseason bowl games to bolster this pitch or adopt a true playoff system. For years I have chosen a non-existent neutral position. The number of bowl games he played ballooned from his 5 in 1940 to his 35 in 2013, but the NCAA never came close to his true football championship.
Limiting the number of games in special venues helps keep the games special. By only performing the Winter Classic once each year, the NHL keeps his January 1st date sacred. (The league’s other outdoor games, the Heritage Classic and the Stadium Series, change dates each year.) As long as the Winter Classic’s production values aren’t worse than any other game on the schedule, fans will attend the next game. there is a reason to Year.
3. Players buy-in.
In 1991, the Kings and New York Rangers played an outdoor game in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The playing surface was subpar, so to speak. It looked like an exhibition game and felt like an exhibition game. The NHL did not stage regular season outdoor games until 2003, moving to Edmonton, as far away from the desert as possible.
By the time of the first Winter Classic in 2008, the outdoor rink building technique was good enough that buy-in from players and coaches was relatively easy. Rotating the game in the most comfortable (read: northern) outdoor climate makes this less of an issue.
4. People watch on TV.
As a business venture, the games must be must-see TV for the league to sell to the networks, and the networks sell commercial airtime to advertisers. All components are required. The intensity and results of regular season games, the lack of production value dips, the constant stream of nostalgia.
Earnings have historically relied more on in-person attendance in hockey than in MLB. For the NHL, the Winter Classic is a clear boon. Attendance at Fenway Park on Monday was 39,243, well above his current NHL home stadium. At the 2014 Winter Classic, a record 104,173 fans gathered at the University of Michigan’s Big House for a game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
One-off MLB games with rotating venues require television audiences. At his MLB “Field of Dreams Game” in Dyersville, Iowa, he had 7,823 attendances last year and 7,832 in 2021. Some tickets he reportedly sold for over $1,000, but the real money was on television. About 6 million viewers watched his Fox on Thursday night, according to MLB, and the 2021 Chicago White Sox-New York Yankees game was his most-watched regular on any network since 1998. It was the game of the season.
What other venue can combine production value, player buy-in, nostalgia, and a massive TV audience into one game?
you can make it smaller.
Built in 1910, Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama has classic grandstands and outfield advertising that fit the scene from the Jackie Robinson biopic 42. In 1920 Birmingham Black began to host his league matches in the majors for his Barons. It is now home to the Division II Miles College baseball team and is very well preserved.
you can go big
Consider the 1st century Roman Colosseum. egyptian pyramids. (It was done earlier). A cricket ground facing the Caribbean Sea.
The possibilities are endless, but the blueprint for success is already in place.