The NHL’s latest foray into outdoor games happened this past weekend, with two tilts on the shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. The actual on-ice play was a bit of a disaster due to weather conditions (Gary Bettman’s infamous enemy, the sun), but let’s not dwell on that right now. For me, the takeaway of this event was the boutique nature of the gathering.
Because of the pandemic, this was not a ticketed event – some boaters showed up eventually, but officially there was no spectator attendance. But the gorgeous outdoor setting had folks talking – and more importantly, Tweeting – about the event all weekend and into this week. Outdoor hockey surrounded by majestic mountains, trees and water? Yes, please.
Which got me thinking of the future for outdoor NHL games. The aesthetic success of Lake Tahoe has already had hockey folks clamoring for a redux in Lake Louise, Alberta and that sounds like a great idea to me, too. But how many fans would be invited?
I’ve had discussions with high-ranking hockey business execs in the past and what has become clear is that smaller is likely going to be the wave of the future for arenas, not bigger – what you do around the arena will become increasingly important (think Tampa Bay’s Thunder Alley, which was inspired by NBA Toronto’s Jurassic Park). And what I could totally see is a new breed of outdoor games that are targeted at big-spending fans who want a unique experience – and are willing to pay for the right not to share it with 50,000 other people.
So picture this: the NHL riffs off the movie Mystery, Alaska by bringing two teams up to the polar state (one would have to be the New York Rangers, obviously) and setting up camp at a high-end hunting or fishing resort. Attendance is limited to maybe 2,000 fans, but the admission is pricey and includes luxury lodging and accommodations. Everything is sponsored and we’re not talking about the NHL’s official melon-baller maker: we’re talking fancy watches, luxury cars and all that jazz.
For those of us who can’t afford such trappings, it’s still a made-for-TV event in a beautiful setting and with the NHL in control of the entire environment, you can have drone cameras, alternate angles for fans to watch on their phones – the whole nine yards.
Am I being too cynical here? It’s not like I think the One Percent deserve more, but I am a pragmatist when it comes to sports business and this is a unique entry point for the NHL, a league that must constantly come up with ways to innovate as it tries to catch up to the other Big Four sports in North America.
And I also don’t believe the stadium outdoor games are dead, either. The NHL kinda owes the Carolina Hurricanes a game, as the match scheduled for Carter-Finley Stadium this season was postponed due to the pandemic. The benefit of the ‘regular’ outdoor game is that you do indeed get the chance to pack in at least two or three times the amount of fans into the seats for a game – making these special outings a cash cow, assuming everything goes right.
But the luster of these games outside of the participating markets has long worn off. If you want compelling TV, you have to keep innovating. Putting the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers on a glacier? That’s innovating. Sending the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins to an old Ontario ghost town that used to stock the Original Six era with talent? That’s intriguing.
Your move, NHL (though you’re probably planning this already, aren’t you?).