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Winter Classic larger than Stanley's mug?

It was the worst group of skaters to set foot on an NHL rink since the first day of training camp in the first season of the Ottawa Senators.

They were mostly the media, a few NHL old-timers, some league staffers and assorted hangers-on who were granted the privilege of going for a skate yesterday on the ice rink at Fenway Park, site of tomorrow's annual outdoor game.

But the large number of them drove home a point that became evident this week - in many ways, the Winter Classic, despite its three-year history as an annual event, is now bigger than the Stanley Cup final.

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"On a national level, the thing has been a beast," John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, said yesterday. "It's delivered everything we wanted in terms of creating a new tradition on New Year's Day, in terms of profile and the momentum it's given the NHL and in terms of its appeal to the corporate advertising community."

The most astonishing statistic about the game turned up in the SportsBusiness Daily this week. A Turnkey sports poll taken in December showed the Winter Classic is in the top five of the events more than 1,100 senior executives in the sports industry are looking forward to seeing. The game placed fifth behind the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics, soccer's World Cup and the U.S. NCAA men's basketball Final Four.

The game, which was the most-anticipated event by 7 per cent of those surveyed, finished ahead of the World Series, the Masters and the NBA finals, which finished seventh through ninth, respectively.

The Stanley Cup final was a distant 12th, with only 1.56 per cent of the executives saying it was their most-anticipated event.

Ever since the game became an annual event starting with the one in Buffalo on Jan. 1, 2008, it was popular with the fans. Every game is a sellout, the league's television ratings always jump and tickets for tomorrow's game are going for $1,000 (U.S.) or more on eBay.

But the poll shows the game gets serious interest from those who make the decisions where corporations spend their sports advertising dollars. That's an important consideration for a league that is still trying to shake off the effects of the 2004-05 lockout.

For example, the NHL governors were told at their annual meetings earlier this month, that while local sponsorship revenue for individual teams is flat overall, their national revenues are growing. A number of companies, such as the insurance giant Geico, Honda and McDonald's, increased their commitment to the league after getting involved with the Winter Classic.

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"Our [overall]corporate advertising has grown 66 per cent per year in each of the last three years," Collins said. "The Winter Classic has been a driver of a lot of that, because it's changed the way the people viewed the opportunity of getting involved with the NHL on a corporate level."

The appeal is mostly nostalgic. Some fans equate the game with childhood memories of playing outdoors, and casual fans have the same rosy memories, which translates into cold, hard cash for the league, plus a connection with an A-list group of sponsors that have mostly taken a pass in recent years.

Gate receipts from the 39,000-plus crowd at Fenway will be about $8-million and the league will get another $10-million in sponsorships, but the real payoff comes with long-term relationships with well-heeled companies.

"[Advertisers]are more inclined to take a look at a property like the NHL if you've got a lot of momentum in creating new events rather than if you're walking in with the same old features, the same story," Collins said.

While most of the revenue from the game goes to the NHL, there is a bonanza for the host teams due to the increased interest because of the game. The Boston Bruins, for example, gained 5,000 new season-ticket holders when they tied those sales to the outdoor game tickets.

Success prompted the NHL to add a second outdoor game in Canada starting next year. But now the challenge is to avoid diluting a good thing.

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For example, jamming an ice rink into a baseball or football stadium means there are few good seats. The best ones at Fenway, where the top seats went for $350, are actually the cheap seats in the upper deck because that's the only place you can see the entire ice surface.

So far, fans are happy to pay just to be part of a big event, but that could change, and Collins says the league is well aware of it.

"We've been careful about the ticket pricing [Fenway's lowest price is $50]" he said. "We've been careful not to overprice this. We don't want it to be a big corporate event, we want a family atmosphere."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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