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NHL poised for 'shock-and-awe'

Updated: 2014-01-03 07:44
By Reuters in Ann Arbor, Michigan ( China Daily)

The National Hockey League opened 2014 with itsbiggest bash ever on Wednesday, firing the first salvo in a campaign designed to turn casual fans into avid ones.

An announced record hockey crowd of 105,491 braved brutal conditions to fill massive Michigan Stadium for the NHL's outdoor Winter Classic as the Toronto Maple Leafs clinched a 3-2 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Over the next three months the NHL will play outdoor games from Los Angeles to New York, Vancouver and Chicago, featuring iconic franchises in historic settings in an unprecedented push to claim more ground in the battle for a larger slice of the North American sporting landscape.

 NHL poised for 'shock-and-awe'

A view from the roof of Michigan Stadium during the National Hockey League's outdoor Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year's Day. The game attracted a record crowd of 105,491. Noah Graham/NHL/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

Emboldened by a new 12-year $5.2 billion Canadian television rights deal, labor peace and increasing talk of expansion, bullish NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has embarked on what one sports marketing expert described as a campaign of "shock-and-awe".

Putting the Winter Classic in 'The Big House' provided the wow factor the NHL was looking for to kick off the New Year, but it marked just the start of the league's marketing blitz.

The Winter Classic will be followed by two games at Yankee Stadium later this month and another in Los Angeles before the NHL returns to the world's biggest sporting stage at the Sochi Olympics.

Coming out of Russia the NHL will try to stay in the spotlight with outdoor contests in Vancouver and Chicago that the league hopes will add to the marketing momentum heading into the spring Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I hate to use military terms, but this really is a sort of shock-and-awe campaign," said Paul Swangard, managing director of Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

"We are going to have these incredibly interesting outdoor experiences, we are sending players to Sochi and all those athletes are going to come back and the casual fan will be more exposed to the game."

In just six years, the outdoor game that started as nothing more than a one-off novelty has grown into the league's marketing centerpiece, a New Year's Day showcase that trails only the Stanley Cup Finals as the NHL's signature event.

A concept that has captured the imagination of casual hockey fans, the appeal of the Winter Classic lies in the Canadian game's outdoor roots, anchored by romantic nostalgia and wintry charm.

The New Year's Day Classic, however, has grown well beyond its initial sentimental appeal into big business, a cash cow for the league, teams and cities that have hosted them.

The Winter Classic was the main event in the week-long hockey extravaganza that also featured alumni games and junior and minor league games at Comerica Park, home of Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers.

The events poured an estimated $60 million into the bankrupt city's economy and another $15 million into Ann Arbor.

Four of the five most-watched NHL regular-season games in the US since 1975 have been Winter Classics and Wednesday's edition is almost certain to join that list.

"I think the week the NHL has put together here and at Comerica Park to sell our game is a great thing," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.

"It's kind of like the Super Bowl setup in a way. This is an unbelievable event to sell hockey."

Now the biggest challenge facing the NHL is what to do for an encore while maintaining the uniqueness that has been part of its tremendous success.

(China Daily 01/03/2014 page23)