The time has come for the NHL to decide whether it wants to bet on the Winter Classic.
The outdoor game, which has become the league’s marquee event, is scheduled to be bigger than ever this year. Detroit is planning to host Toronto in 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium on New Year’s Day, and two weeks of complementary events leading up to the game are scheduled for downtown Detroit.
The NHL has agreed to pay $3 million in rental fees to the University of Michigan for use of the football stadium in Ann Arbor. The league gave the school $100,000 in February when the deal was signed. The second payment of $250,000 is due today. An additional cancellation clause kicks in.
According to the contract, which is available at AnnArbor.com, if cancellation of the game occurs prior to and including today, the league forfeits only its initial $100,000 deposit. If cancellation occurs Saturday or later, the NHL gives up the initial deposit plus all the university’s documented out-of-pocket expenses.
The additional costs that may be incurred for an event that could become a casualty of the lockout has many believing the NHL will cancel the Winter Classic today in lieu of making its payment.
“Not in a position to comment on the Winter Classic unless or until there is a decision and an announcement,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told the Orange County (Calif.) Register on Thursday.
For the league, which has already turned away from hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating games through November, the main factors in a Winter Classic cancellation could be logistical as opposed to financial. There are tens of thousands of fans to think of, including those with airplane and hotel reservations during a holiday weekend. The NHL treats the game, which began in Buffalo in 2008, as a first-class event. It might not want to compromise the brand by hastily throwing it together if a collective bargaining agreement is reached.
Cancellation of the Winter Classic would be another huge blow to all involved:
• With college football’s departure from the New Year’s Day schedule, hockey garners the most attention on the holiday. An average of 3.7 million people watched Philadelphia host the New York Rangers last year; the Stanley Cup playoffs averaged 1 million viewers.
• The league’s business partners would lament the game’s disappearance, specifically Bridgestone, which sponsors the event, and NBC, which is in the first year of a 10-year, $2 billion deal to televise games.
• The players would lose the attention created annually by HBO’s popular “24/7” series. It tracks the teams leading up to the game and has made players like Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov more popular and recognizable to the public.
• Detroit would lose the opportunity to boost its economy. Anywhere from $22 million to $36 million is expected to be pumped into the area because of the game.
The Winter Classic has been viewed as a bargaining chip by both the league and the NHL Players’ Association throughout the lockout. The game’s elimination would put an additional spin on the work stoppage, which hasn’t seen negotiations take place since each side’s proposals were rejected Oct. 18. A cancellation could be the prelude to the NHL scrapping its entire season, or it could jump-start talks by convincing players the league is serious in its demands and deadlines.