Why the Winter Classic gets me out of bed on New Year’s Day

After a night of revelry with friends, there’s not much that can get me excited about crawling out from under my covers the next day. One thing that can is the Winter Classic.

It doesn’t really matter which teams are playing or which historic stadium is featured. I don’t even really care who wins most times. It is just another two points, after all.

Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Winter Classic

The first Winter Classic played in Buffalo. Or the best one thus far.

What gets me excited is the idea of my favorite game in the world getting some air time on a national holiday. I love the idea that some kids might watch their first hockey game that day. It thrills me when a hockey game is nationally broadcast on a major cable network. The attention is fabulous.

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Can PR make hockey Mr. Popular?

When you think of the greatest sports in the world, ice hockey most likely comes to mind first. Blades hitting fresh ice, players slamming into the boards, and a little red light blazing with each goal scored.

However, when you think of the most popular sports in the world, you’re more likely to think of soccer, perhaps. Maybe football if you’re thinking of “the world” in a strictly American sense.

As a hockey fan, it’s hard for me to understand how the sport isn’t bigger across the globe. During my family’s summer trips to Canada, I like to pretend that everyone respects the game as much as Canadians do. Unfortunately, hockey hasn’t hooked the media, or the general sports-loving public, in a way that would put it first in a popularity contest.

Let’s go back to the 2004-2005 lockout season. Here’s a quick recap for those new to the sport: The National Hockey League shut down when the league and the players’ union failed to agree on a salary cap.  After a year without hockey, the league had a mess to deal with when the lockout ended and play was set to resume.

Things went well during the first year back on the ice. It helped that Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin were around to promote the game. However, the sport continues to sit at the bottom of the totem pole of professional sports in the United States and many other countries.

So what’s the problem?

To start, the NHL has less-than-spectacular television contracts. Currently, fans have to settle for a handful of games on Versus and one game per week on NBC (and that only kicks in midway through the season). Fox Sports Net broadcasts the games of your closest NHL team, but if you live in a different city, you’re out of luck. If you live around Cleveland (like me), hockey is even harder to come by because of the Cavs dominance of FSN.

If people can’t watch hockey on TV, they’re less likely to follow the sport. Fans have been frustrated by broadcast difficulties for years, and it’s time the NHL finds a way to please the people.

Now add in the fact that hockey is missing from sports media coverage. When I see hockey on ESPN, I feel like celebrating. To pull in a new audience, the league needs to foster better relationships with the media.

Also, as more rules are enforced through the years, some feel that “old time hockey” is fading away and being replaced by a watered-down version. But that’s its own post, just waiting to happen…

So what’s gone right?

Well, the league has worked hard to make the sport more fan-friendly. Teams have reached out to their fan bases by allowing better access to players, and the Winter Classic has provided mid-season excitement.

I’ll focus on both the good and the bad of hockey public relations in more detail as I continue to blog. I hope that by looking at the league’s promotion in a broad view, we can all start to understand what works and what doesn’t in hockey PR. Let me know what you think. After all, we all want hockey to win the sports popularity contest someday, right?