Sports teams are going everywhere, from airport hangars to aircraft carriers
January 18, 2014 7:55 PM
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
North Carolina practices Thursday for the Carrier Classic aboard the USS Carl Vinson in Coronado, Calif.
By Michael Sanserino / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In an era where billions of dollars are being spent each year to build shiny stadiums and glitzy arenas, one of the biggest trends in sports is to take games to unexpected places.
Hockey teams are playing outdoors in football and baseball stadiums. College football teams are playing bowl games in baseball stadiums. NFL teams are playing games in soccer stadiums each year in London. And college basketball teams have taken their sport to airport hangars and aircraft carriers -- yes, aircraft carriers.
"Sports in general have focused more on the fan experience," said Scott Branvold, professor of sports management at Robert Morris University.
"They're going to sell the game to purists, but for the casual fan, they want something more."
Television ratings have driven the movement. The success of the National Hockey League's Winter Classic, first staged in a snowstorm in 2008, prompted the league to add a handful of outdoor games each year. The six outdoor games held so far, two of which involved the Penguins, have been the six most-watched regular season games in the past 39 years.
This year, the league plans to stage six outdoor games total, including four as part of the inaugural Stadium Series that kicks off Saturday at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The Penguins will play the Chicago Blackhawks on March 1 in the final game of the series at Soldier Field in Chicago.
But it is not just TV that has convinced the NHL that it can cash in on the event's success. According to the trade publication Sports Business Journal, the league generated $30 million in revenue from this year's Winter Classic through ticket sales, sponsorship and merchandise sales. The event cost the league $10 million to produce.
And with teams using such events to introduce retro-themed alternate jerseys, the merchandise has a long shelf life, as any Penguins fan still wearing one of the two blue jerseys from the team's past Winter Classic appearances can attest.
The biggest selling point for any of the sporting events held in unusual venues is novelty.
In the case of the outdoor hockey games, the NHL's efforts to build on the earlier success risk losing that novelty with oversaturation.
"This year is very much a test, an experiment to see how it's received," said Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming and the original architect of the Winter Classic.
No decisions have been made about the 2015 schedule, Mr. Miller said. The network, which owns the league's broadcast rights, will defer to the NHL, but it will offer input with ratings results.
The NHL is not the first league to try to capitalize on a novel concept. Major League Baseball tried to expand on its success with the All-Star game by showcasing two All-Star games per season from 1959 to 1962. The games were played in separate cities, often more than a dozen days apart.
The goal, The New York Times recently noted, was to earn more money for the players' pension funds.
Dwindling crowd sizes prompted the league to scrap the idea after four years.
"That kind of watered down the All-Star games," Mr. Branvold said. "There is no magic formula that tells you when you've done too much or gone over the line."
Some efforts at throwing a twist into the traditional game place have not worked as well as the Winter Classic. A college football game between the Northwestern Wildcats and Illinois Fighting Illini in 2010 at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs' historic baseball stadium, was played using just one end zone after Big Ten officials feared there was not enough room between the end of one end zone and Wrigley Field's famed ivy-covered brick wall, though it was padded for the game.
All offensive plays and kickoff returns ran toward one end of the field.
That didn't stop Northwestern University from announcing last year a deal with the Cubs to stage five additional football games at Wrigley Field, though dates for those games are pending as the Cubs are still working through details of a planned $500 million renovation for the 100-year-old ballpark.
The NFL's trips to London don't generate the same type of TV interest in America as the other novelty events. But the goal is different.
The football league is trying to build its brand overseas with long-term hopes of establishing a franchise in London. It is somewhat similar to how the NBA stages exhibition basketball games in a variety of places -- from Pittsburgh to China -- though the NBA is more interested in building its brand than cultivating future hosts.
The NHL Winter Classic was created specifically with TV in mind. The concept was spawned by Mr. Miller, who was looking for a New Year's Day broadcasting event after his network's contract with the Gator Bowl expired in 2005.
He got the idea for an outdoor hockey game after seeing the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers play an outdoor game in 2003, the original Heritage Classic, at Commonwealth Stadium, home to the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.
Like the Winter Classic, the Heritage Classic is an annual NHL event featuring two Canadian teams playing outdoors in a stadium. The NHL's first outdoor game occurred in 1991, when the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers played an exhibition game in Las Vegas.
The Heritage Classic borrowed the idea from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, which in 2001 played an outdoor hockey game in Michigan State's football stadium in East Lansing. The "Cold War" drew a then-record 74,544 fans.
Since then, Michigan State has been at the forefront of the movement toward novel venues. It was the first school to play host to a basketball game at the 50-yard-line of a football stadium, allowing the school to sell more tickets. Previously, basketball games in domed stadiums had been staged toward one end zone for better sight lines, with most of the stadium's seats going unused.
The center field concept has been adopted at four of the past five Final Fours -- the NCAA men's basketball semifinal and championship games.
Meanwhile, on Veteran's Day in 2011, Michigan State and North Carolina played a basketball game on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, the same aircraft carrier that six months earlier had carried the body of Osama bin Laden. It was the most-watched regular season college basketball TV broadcast in five years.
While there were no public tickets for the events (seats were occupied by servicemen and school donors), President Barack Obama scored a seat for the game.
The next year, six schools tried to mimic that success, but weather did not cooperate. Two games were canceled and a third was played in the midst of a gusty Pacific Ocean breeze. No basketball teams attempted an outdoor game this season.
By 2012, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, the mastermind behind all of these moves, was already working on his next idea. Michigan State and the University of Connecticut played a game in an airport hangar on a U.S. Air Force base in Germany. There, servicemen watched the game from bleachers, specially built for the event.
"People want to see things that are different," Mr. Hollis said. "That's the challenge in business or anything you do. Once you set that bar, what's the next thing you can do?"
Mr. Hollis, who spent two years at the University of Pittsburgh as an assistant and associate athletic director in the 1990s, believes the NHL can sustain six outdoor games this year without losing much of the novelty.
"Much more growth on the outdoor games, I would start to grow concerned," he said. "Keep them special, not diluting it to the point where they become mundane or average. That's my concern."
Instead of repeating his own past triumphs, he is moving on.
He has a couple projects in mind, one of which is to take the Michigan State Spartans overseas again, perhaps to Greece to play in an ancient Olympic stadium.
"Nobody has new ideas," Mr. Hollis said. "They're always a collection of what others do, and you form it in your own mind."
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1969 or on Twitter @msanserino.
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