We’re coming off the All-Star Break and gearing up for a swing out West. Since there’s little to write about right now, here’s an article I wrote for the print edition of The Committed Indian a few weeks ago, concerning another NHL gimmick and what might not be a bad idea for its future. As ever, thanks to Sam and the guys for letting me contribute and you can subscribe to the digital version right here. Or just pick it up at the UC on game nights. Do yerselves a favour, innit?)
Another Winter Classic over, and there are signs of apathy about the annual Outdoor spectacle. Perhaps it’s the lack of rivalry between the Hawks and the Caps, or the decidedly non-wintry conditions or the general blandness of Nationals Park. Maybe it’s just due to there being six outdoor games last year and people becoming blasé. Whatever the cause, the ratings were down and questions are being asked about the future of hockey in the open air. One option that has been mooted is the idea of playing an outdoor game (not necessarily the Classic) in Europe. That’s got merit: the NHL used to play pre-season games over here and they were generally well-received. Names like Stockholm and Helsinki are usually bandied around as venues, as they are the strongholds of hockey in Europe. However, I’d like to see the NHL go further and examine the prospect of hosting an outdoor game in London (no, not London ON, the other one!)
The NFL has been playing regular season games in the city for a few years now and they sell out 80,000 seater Wembley Stadium in minutes. Weekend of the game, London is full of people from every corner of Europe wearing every conceivable NFL jersey. It’s a roaring success and people have a hell of a good time. Now obviously I know that the NFL (and the NBA, who are back in London in 2015) have a far larger global profile than the NHL, but I still think its a viable concept. Hell, they occasionally play College Football games in Ireland: they haven’t all been successes, but they drew 50,000 for Notre Dame/Navy in 2012, with an estimated 35,000 Americans travelling to Dublin. Let’s have a look at the reasoning.
First off, yes, I know Hockey is a minority sport in the UK. London doesn’t even have a team in the top-tier domestic league, the EIHL. But, trust me, British (and European in general) sports fans are fascinated by the spectacle and theatre around North American sports. Hockey is lighter on the razzle-dazzle than the NFL, but it would still be seen as an event and people would be curious. While the Nordic and Eastern European countries are the bastions of Hockey here, they simply wouldn’t attract the same amount of attention as a game played in one of the world’s great cities.
Related to that, London also has the advantage of being a major tourist destination, with plenty of other reasons to come and visit than just the hockey game. A lot of the Continental Europeans who come for the NFL games are making a week of it. London is also ridiculously easy to get to from pretty much anywhere, and budget airlines can get people in quickly and cheaply (Europe is small, y’all: London to Bratislava, Slovakia is 2 hours; Stockholm, Sweden, 2 hours 30 minutes). Hell, there’s even a train link to Paris. North Americans with deep pockets can fly direct from almost everywhere in the States.
Stadia is an interesting conundrum: London has the aforementioned iconic Wembley and can seat 80,000 in the magnificent Twickenham, the home of English rugby and also the newer Olympic Stadium. However, I would guess the League would like to avoid the possibility of lots of empty seats on TV in case they don’t quite have the pulling power to fill these on the first try. Luckily there are plenty of other options, like Emirates Stadium (60,000 capacity) or other, slightly smaller, Premiership Soccer grounds (one feels that the vast playing surface rules out the Cricket grounds at Lords and the Oval). They drew 17,000 for indoor pre-season games between the Ducks and Kings at the O2 Arena back in 2007, with neither of those teams, with the greatest possible respect, being household names over here.
The cons? Well, they’re there, for sure. As already stated, Hockey is very much a minority game in the UK, as in much of Europe. That said, a potential deal-changer is that there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Slovaks, Slovenes, Czechs and Latvians living in the UK. The chance to see a Chara, Hossa, Kopitar or (especially, in light of All Star voting!) Girgensons would be a great draw if the League made sure it got its marketing right. One feels that the Maple Leafs would have to be involved as they (like the Cowboys, Yankees and, yes, Manchester United) are the most identifiable team worldwide in their sport.
Another potential problem is the weather.. snow would be highly unlikely but rain (sigh) certainly would be. There’s only one Stadium with a closable roof in the UK and that’s the wonderful 75,000 seater Millennium Stadium in Cardiff (which is certainly not London and I guess not technically outdoors if they have to shut the roof!) Not least, of course, is the time difference for US TV audiences. London is five hours ahead of New York, six ahead of Chicago and a whopping eight ahead of LA. At this northern latitude (on the same line, pretty much, as Calgary and St. John’s, Newfoundland) it gets dark early at this time of year, so there’s a limit to how late it could start unless they use the floodlights. That said, everywhere on Continental Europe is an hour further ahead.
I guess the final objections might be the impact on merch sales and negative reaction from North American-based fans who can’t afford to add an intercontinental flight to the already expensive task of getting to an outdoor game. While I’m sure plenty of swag would be sold in and around the event, the likelihood of most of the fans being neutral or fans of other teams means that some of the big-ticket items like jerseys may not fly off the racks. The NHL is nothing if not inventive in its ability to extract cash from its customers, so I wouldn’t fret too much about them finding a way to get around this. As for the other.. well, yes. It’s true that getting from O’Hare to Heathrow is a lot pricier than getting to DC. I sympathise, but I still think that’s a small price to pay for potentially increasing the earning power of the league, with all those nice salary cap considerations that come with it.
I honestly believe that a combination of expat Americans and Canadians, curious locals, Eastern European immigrants, fans from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, France, Austria and elsewhere and the few, the proud actual NHL fans from this neck of the woods, could turn an outdoor game into an amazing spectacle and a great promotion for the sport. Media coverage would be huge and could do a great deal to raise the profile of the game of Hockey here. But it would be a bold gamble to take for a league and Commissioner not necessarily known for their bravery (stupidity, on the other hand.. well, let’s not go there, eh?). It would also drive the KHL absolutely nuts, so that’s another big positive (and London getting an outdoor game before Minnesota do would be the most hilarious thing to ever happen) [ed note.. well, that pip-dream has gone in the interim!] . It was a courageous decision to air Super Bowl XVII on then brand-new TV station Channel 4 back in 1983 and (partly thanks to DA 85 BEARCE MY FRENT) the NFL never really looked back in the UK. Similar cojones from Bettman and pals could grab a slice of that pie. Never going to happen, is it?
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