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On The Relevance Of The Winter Classic

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Every year, there’s debate about if the Winter Classic still matters. Trust St. Louis: it does.

2017 NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The NHL’s Winter Classic has been the league’s flagship event since 2008. Like much that the league does, there’s contention over the execution. It’s hard to argue that the first one, at Ralph Wilson Stadium, wasn’t a spectacle that was the start of something special. With over 71,000 people in attendance, goalies in toques (!), and Sidney Crosby doing Crosby things, it was a great inauguration to the concept of the outdoor game.

The 2009 Winter Classic was also a sight to behold at Wrigley. It was the first time that the Blackhawks and Red Wings were featured in an outdoor game, and it was again a major event. The Flyers and Bruins at Fenway continued the tradition of picturesque baseball stadiums and classic teams that are able to draw on deep history and natural rivalries to hold fan and media interest.

Red Wings-Hawks Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

Then something happened.

The 2011 NHL Winter Classic was held at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, making the Penguins the first team to repeat an appearance in the Classic. The weather did not cooperate (as we stand a risk of tomorrow in St. Louis), the setting was not awe inspiring, the camera work was awful, and Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion that marred the rest of his season. Fans started to grumble about the novelty of the game wearing off, especially those who were concerned about the NHL’s propensity to feature certain teams over others. When the league still draws over 68,000 people at an outdoor game, though, there’s no reason to change the formula.

The NHL is a business. Yes, it is a business dependent upon its fans and fan interest, but that’s fan interest as a whole, not the interest of a select group of fans. The league’s first responsibility to its owners and players is to turn a profit, and they followed a formula for that. First off, outdoor games make money. They’re held in larger venues so they can pack more people in, and the spectacle is a draw. Throw in an alumni game and some fan events, and the concept is a cash cow. Select teams with a national fanbase, and you’re nearly guaranteed decent ratings on NBC or whatever network is airing the game.

You can complain about the teams participating all that you want to, but the league chooses the teams that they do for a reason. The Red Wings or Blackhawks are going to draw people to the game. The Columbus Blue Jackets are not.

The formula has proven successful so far for the league and the participating teams, but in recent years fan fatigue has become apparent. The league increased the number of outdoor games in 2011, bringing back the Heritage Classic that February, a month after the Winter Classic.

Then the lockout happened, and the league felt the need to “apologize” to the fans through throwing outdoor games at them. In just the 2013-2014 season, we saw the Maple Leafs play the Red Wings in front of over 105,000 people in Ann Arbor followed by the Ducks against the Kings at Dodger Stadium less than a month later. Then the Rangers hosted two outdoor games three days apart, one against the Flyers and one against their cross-town rivals, the New York Islanders. The Blackhawks hosted the Penguins at Soldier Field to conclude the Stadium Series, and the Canucks hosted the Senators at the Heritage Classic.

Despite the novelty of seeing two California teams play on shockingly good ice, the Stadium Series and complete slate of outdoor games weren’t as successful outside of the local markets as the league would hope. The attendance at the games was outstanding, of course, and the league turned a profit, but people started grumbling. Why were the Blackhawks and Flyers and Rangers featured again? Did anyone really care about tuning in to the Stadium Series games? What impact would the inflated slate of games have on the league’s marquee event?

The pro of these multiple games was that a few non-traditional markets got to play. A con was that people didn’t tune into the Winter Classic like they used to. The 2015 Winter Classic suffered from both outdoor game fatigue and “these guys again” fatigue. The game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals - two teams with minimal history between them but with star power and national fanbases - plunged in the ratings. The 2014 Winter Classic pulled a 2.5 share; the 2015 Classic was at just a 1.9 share. The league continued the Stadium Series with a game between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks that packed Levi’s Stadium.

2015 Coors Light Stadium Series - Los Angeles Kings v San Jose Sharks Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2016 Classic’s TV ratings dropped even further, drawing a 1.6 share. This is a problem, right? For NBC Sports, sure. For the league? The 2016 Winter Classic between the the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins (Boston’s second Classic) packed Gillette Stadium’s over 67,000 seats. The NHL made money. They made money off of the Stadium Series games last year as well, despite the Blackhawks and Red Wings appearing in yet another outdoor game. The local crowds in Minnesota and Denver showed up for the events. This marked a shift in strategy from “fan interest as a whole” to “local fan interest,” and it is still supremely profitable for the league.

It has reached the point that it doesn’t matter as much who watches nationally. It doesn’t matter that the national media bemoans the ratings of the games, and the constant debate on if the games need to be tweaked to get more people to watch is a moot point.

These games matter for the cities that host them. The games make money for the NHL hand over fist, but they are also financial boons for the local markets and economies. They’re marquee events that the league grants franchises who have the name recognition to command an audience, but they’re also a prize to be won by the cities that host. Big cities, such as Boston, New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh (who also have pretty nationally notable teams), have hosted twice.

Middle-market teams such as the Blues, based upon local economy size, have more to gain by hosting an event like this than a larger city does. The 2017 Winter Classic and the events around it will bring up to $18 million to the local economy here in St. Louis over the holiday weekend. That isn’t chump change for metro St. Louis hotels, dining establishments, and shops. Couple this with the fact that the economy in St. Louis is improving at a healthy clip, and that means that a lot of local money will be spent in the city limits.

For a city like St. Louis, and a team like the Blues, the Winter Classic is more than money. There are two major league sports teams here, and both love their history. The Cardinals, with their eleven World Series championships and countless hall of famers, is one of the most storied franchises in Major League Baseball. The Blues have fifty years of outstanding coaches and tremendous players who have managed to win multiple Stanley Cups... elsewhere, of course. But the players on this team are loved for more than wins. Do we laugh about how guys tend to get a championship after they leave the city? Yep. Do we love the guys who play here for their scrappiness and whatever “blue collar work ethic” is? Absolutely.

The Blues are the yang to the Cardinals’ yin. The Cardinals are celebrated for their success, their style, and their history. The Blues are beloved for the cast of characters who have skated through here over the past fifty seasons. Over 40,000 people came to the Alumni Game yesterday to watch a group of guys, many of whom won Cups elsewhere, celebrate the history of a franchise that has always seemed to be a day late and a dollar short.

What’s special about Blues fans is not that we don’t care about the shortcomings, but that we have embraced them and made them part of this team’s identity before shifting our eyes to the future of the franchise. It’s something that we’ve had practice at over the last fifty years, certainly. It’s also something that is embodied in the celebration of the Blues and the city of St. Louis this weekend.

We’re always looking to the past here while grumbling about the present and looking forward to the future. It’s one of St. Louis’ many charms. We’ve hosted the 1904’s World’s Fair and Olympics (which wasn’t the total disaster people claim it was... except for the marathon. That was bad), and there was a time where a serious campaign existed to relocate the nation’s capital to St. Louis. We’ve dealt with post WWII population exodus and highways that divided our neighborhoods. St. Louis has come through economic boom, bust, and rejuvenation.

Our hometown teams, and our relationship with those teams, reflect our relationship with this city. The Cardinals are what we once were and a reminder of what we can be, but the Blues are us. The slogan “Our Town, Our Team” is appropriate. They’ve been to the Stanley Cup finals, they’ve nearly relocated to Saskatoon. They’ve been Presidents Trophy winners and they’ve finished toward the bottom of the league in the standings. They don’t seem to get the national recognition that they deserve despite having some of the best players in the league.

They’re worth celebrating, just like St. Louis is. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many championships a team wins, just like it doesn’t matter how big a city is. There’s more to the Blues than a trophy that they don’t have. Despite fans’ grumbling and sarcastic comments about a lack of a Stanley Cup, there’s a deep sense of pride in the team and what they’ve accomplished.

Many people joke that St. Louis is the only city in the country to build a monument to people leaving. We’re a self-depreciating people who tend to not call attention to the city’s achievements, past or present. This weekend, however, is our chance to welcome people and show off the city and the team.