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The Great Outdoors

The big news last night was that the NHL is expanding its outdoor schedule to carry five more outdoor games in larger venues in addition to the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at the Big House in Ann Arbor. In that series, the Hawks are scheduled to take on the Penguins on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at Soldier Field. And thus far, most have seemed to agree with Puck Daddy’s Harrison Mooney and his claim that this is a cynical cash grab. But while Mooney is right in that aspect of it, he’s incorrect in stating that it’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of thing Hawks fans should be glad is happening.

With the addition of more outdoor games at a wide swath of venues, including the seemingly unfriendly climate of Southern California at Dodger Stadium, the primary argument against the league’s action is that it dilutes the “magic” and “uniqueness” of Winter Classics past and present. This is a load of hogwash from the very beginning of the series, as Ralph Wilson Stadium, the site of the first Classic between the Sabres and Penguins isn’t exactly a hallowed venue known for its storied history of winning, Frank Reich’s heroics against the Houston Oilers notwithstanding. Same goes for both Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, with both parks sharing upwards of a century of championship droughts to go along with their fabled grounds. Furthermore, anything dubbed a “Classic” by corporate sponsors and league P.R. execs prior to the puck being dropped in its inaugural game reeks of cynicism from its very inception. As such, any of these claims can be thrown right out the window.

From a more practical standpoint, after the league and players association embarrassed themselves thoroughly with this most recent work stoppage, sextupling-down on an event that has always brought the league positive press hardly seems like the worst idea for a League in desperate need of an image boost. But on top of that, one of the results from the lockout was a lowered cap as a result of a smaller share of revenue now going to the players in the 2013-2014 season, and this is a tactic that will benefit organizations such as the Hawks in the long run, even if they’re not participating in any of the games in the future.

If the average NHL arena seats approximately 20,000 people, games at these venues (aside from the already scheduled game at the Big House) will get about an extra 35,000 people through the turnstiles per game, totaling about 175,000 more tickets sold. That’s the equivalent to about nine extra games’ worth of attendance added to HRR, with all of these tickets sold at premium prices. Not to mention all of the commensurate television ad revenue, as these games televise incredibly well, and the premium prices for sponsorship of all the ancillary events that go with it. Because the fact of the matter is that for all the carping about the games losing their magic, people will instinctively flock to these things like the salmon of Capistrano.

Furthermore, the NHL is doing this in an Olympic year, when the general public’s interest in hockey is heightened as a result of the game being played by the world’s best on network television for two weeks straight. These games could have a multiplicative residual effect in future seasons if the league is able to convert the coveted “casual fan” into a long term die hard. The league is also doing two games the week before the Super Bowl in New York, further exemplifying their laser focus in attracting national attention and revenue.

Of course, all of this means increased money for the evil owners, who strong-armed themselves into getting a bigger slice of the revenue pie during the last CBA staring contest. But if they enlarge the pie (if you’ll pardon the expression) via these methods, then there becomes more overall money that goes to the players, and therefore increases the salary cap.

Any fans of large market teams, as we are for the Hawks, should obviously welcome an increased cap, especially with the inevitable buyouts of Rusty Olesz and Steve Montador looming. Yes, that money won’t count against the cap, but it will still come out of Rocky Wirtz’s pocket. But if there is a buffer built in through these outdoor games, owners like Rocky, Ed Snider, James Dolan, and others, will be more inclined to spend to the cap, however high it might climb. Artificially inflating the cap like this also makes it easier to keep winning teams together for longer periods of time, something everyone here should have an acute sensitivity to. Thanks again, Dale.

Of course, the results of this will only raise the salary floor in conjunction with the salary cap, and once again create a gap between the league’s haves and have-nots that will cause everyone to barrel headlong into yet another lockout, unless by some miracle these teams move to markets that can support them. But hey, if it enables the Hawks to match a ridiculous offer sheet Paul Holmgren gives Brandon Saad in two years, I say get your asses outside boys.

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