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OC Register: Hoornstra: What MLB can learn from the NHL’s Winter Classic

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Few things in sports today are universally liked, let alone loved. The NHL’s annual Winter Classic has become the rare exception.

Arriving at Fenway Park to play the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, players from the Boston Bruins wore classic high-stirrup Boston Red Sox uniforms. The Penguins were outfitted like the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates. The coaches, donning tweed flat caps and varsity jackets, appeared to be ripped from the pages of a black-and-white yearbook.

With snow on the field and the Green Monster as a backdrop, fans were treated to 60 minutes of hockey as it was originally played: on an outdoor sheet of ice, in the daytime, free from most digital trappings of the modern indoor game. As a visual spectacle, the Winter Classic is a high-budget, unscripted period piece.

It’s easy for a special event to feel gimmicky and nearly impossible to make it feel authentic. Somehow the NHL – often with help from a local Major League Baseball team – pulls it off every year. Why does it work, and can MLB reverse-engineer the formula?

The formula rests on a few truths, some more tangible than others:

1. Sport is nostalgia.

In 1998, the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals staged a “Turn Ahead The Clock” night at The Kingdome; another 20 teams joined in the promotion for one night the following year. Players wore gaudy “futuristic” uniforms, among other aesthetic trappings of some imagined 21st-century hellscape.

The promotion flopped for a simple reason: sports serve to remind adults of an earlier time in their own lives, if not the lives of their parents and grandparents. Turning ahead the clock does nothing to reinforce our place in a world that predates our working memory. Turning back the clock, when executed well, makes us all warm and fuzzy inside. The Winter Classic finds a new and fun way to execute that every year.

2. It’s only one game.

College football, more than any major North American sport, relies on nostalgia to sell its product. At some point, the NCAA had the choice to use its postseason bowl games to reinforce this sales pitch or adapt a true playoff system. For years it chose the nonexistent middle ground. The number of bowl games ballooned from five in 1940 to 35 in 2013, yet the NCAA came no closer to crowning a true football champion.

Limiting the number of special-venue games keeps the games, well, special. By staging only one Winter Classic each year, the NHL keeps the Jan. 1 date sacred. (The league’s other outdoor games, the Heritage Classic and the Stadium Series, rotate dates every year.) As long as the production value of the Winter Classic is no worse than any other game on the schedule, fans have a reason to tune in next year.

3. The players buy in.

In 1991, the Kings and New York Rangers played an outdoor game in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The playing surface was, shall we say, subpar. It looked like an exhibition game and felt like an exhibition game. The NHL did not stage a regular-season outdoor game until 2003 and moved it to Edmonton – as far from the desert as possible.

By the time of the first Winter Classic, in 2008, outdoor rink-building technology was good enough that buy-in from players and coaches was relatively easy. Rotating the game among the most hospitable (read: northern) outdoor climates helps make this a non-issue.

4. People will watch on television.

As a business venture, the game has to be must-see TV in order for the league to sell it to networks, who in turn sell commercial air time to advertisers. This requires all the other building blocks of a successful event: the intensity and consequence of a regular-season game, no drop-off in production value, and a steady stream of nostalgia.

Revenues are historically more reliant on in-person attendance in hockey than in MLB. For the NHL, the Winter Classic provides an obvious boon. Attendance at Fenway Park on Monday was 39,243 – considerably more than any current NHL home stadium. The 2014 Winter Classic drew a record 104,173 fans to the University of Michigan’s Big House for a game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

For a rotating-venue, one-off MLB game, the TV audience is necessary. MLB’s “Field of Dreams Game” in Dyersville, Iowa recorded attendance at 7,823 last year and 7,832 in 2021. Some tickets reportedly sold for more than $1,000, but television was where the real money was. With nearly 6 million viewers tuning into Fox on a Thursday night, the 2021 game between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees was the most-watched regular-season game on any network since 1998, according to MLB.

What other venues can roll production value, player buy-in, nostalgia and a big TV audience into one game?

You could go small.

Constructed in 1910, Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama has the classic grandstand and outfield ads that made it perfect for scenes in the Jackie Robinson biopic “42”. It began hosting major league games in 1920 for the Birmingham Black Barons. Currently home to the Division II Miles College baseball team, it is remarkably well-preserved.

You could go big.

Think a first-century Roman colosseum. The pyramids of Egypt. (It’s been done before). A cricket ground pressed against the Caribbean Sea.

The possibilities aren’t endless, but the blueprint for success is already in place.

The Pittsburgh Penguins play against the Boston Bruins during the first period of the NHL Winter Classic on Monday at Fenway Park in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
The Pittsburgh Penguins play against the Boston Bruins during the first period of the NHL Winter Classic on Monday at Fenway Park in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

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