The NHL's Winter Classic, which began with snow-globe quaintness on New Year's Day in 2008 in the home stadium of the Buffalo Bills, has turned into a profit center for a league that strives to be different.
The third Classic, between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers this afternoon, is expected to generate $8 million in ticket sales at Fenway Park and $3 million in ad revenue at NBC, triple the total of two years ago.
Thanks largely to the midseason game, the league says that its sponsorship sales are growing at a 66 percent annual pace and its merchandise revenue, led by the throwback jerseys inspired by the first classic, is soaring.
"This is a validation of the business strategy we put in place in 2007, which said, more than anything, that that the NHL needs to build league-scale," said John Collins, the league's chief operating officer.
The first game, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., had AMP Energy as its title sponsor. For the second, Bridgestone, which was already a league sponsor, added extra money to put its name on the event. The company said that its official tie to the game helped increase brand awareness and increase its market share in Canada.
"Leveraging off our first one at Wrigley, we've seen quite a bit of success," said Michael Gorey, the president of Bridgestone's consumer tire sales division for the United States and Canada. "It's done a great job for us."
The scope of the outdoor hockey event has grown from year to year. For the first one, the game was the entire thing. For the second, at Wrigley Field, where the Detroit Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks, the temporary ice rink brought in by the league was also used for a few other days by sponsors and the community.
"Financially, it was successful for us," said Crane Kenney, the president of the Cubs. Kenney added that he provided the Red Sox' Fenway Sports Group, which, along with the league, is managing the logistics of the third Classic, his experience with the outdoor rink's refrigeration system and with heating the concourses on a potentially frigid day.
By the time the rink is trucked away, the ice will have been open at Fenway for 24 days for adult and high school games, a Jan. 8 college doubleheader, corporate events and for use by community groups.
"With the help of the Bruins, we decided to expand the programming of the rink," said Sam Kennedy, the president of the Fenway Sports Group. "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing."
The NHL is paying Fenway a rental fee for the Winter Classic (which will pay, at least partly, for resodding the field), and the two will share net revenues from the college games. Separately, the league is charging Fenway an estimated $16,000 a day when the rink is used for entertainment. Fenway is renting the rink to corporate groups and others for as much as $10,000 an hour.
Kennedy said there was a long waiting list to rent the rink.
The league, which paid $1.5 million for the rink refrigeration system that made its debut at Wrigley, is paying the Bruins the ticket, concession and parking revenue lost to the game being played away from TD Garden.
Collins said the cost of staging the Classic was "in the millions, but this is a profitable event."
In 2008, an average of 3.75 million viewers watched on NBC, which was exceeded last New Year's Day with a 17 percent jump to 4.4 million, the most-viewed regular-season NHL game in 34 years. Nearly 1.3 million more watched it in Canada.
NBC's viewership for the Classic at Wrigley nearly tripled what the network averaged for its regular-season NHL games and exceeded the 1.8 million who watched its early-round playoff games.
In offering the league the Jan. 1 slot for the outdoor game, NBC reasoned that it could counterprogram the day's college bowl schedule and create an event akin to its successful National Dog Show on Thanksgiving.
Last January, the Classic attracted about 300,000 more viewers than the Outback Bowl did on ESPN.
"There seems to be a different college bowl game every day and none of them feel special anymore," said Mike McCarley, the senior vice president for strategic marketing for NBC Universal Sports. "We felt we could seize an opportunity and create something special."