Does the NHL have too many outdoor games?

Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask (40) makes a save as Adam McQuaid (54) defends against Montreal Canadiens' Brendan Gallagher (11) during the third period of the NHL Winter Classic hockey game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Friday, Jan. 1, 2016. The Canadiens won 5-1. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask (40) makes a save as Adam McQuaid (54) defends against Montreal Canadiens' Brendan Gallagher (11) during the third period of the NHL Winter Classic hockey game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Friday, Jan. 1, 2016. The Canadiens won 5-1. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Credit: Michael Dwyer

Credit: Michael Dwyer

Demand for the 2011 Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals sent secondary market prices skyrocketing to $489 on average, as fans filled standing room-only sections at Heinz Field.

This time around, if you hurry, tickets can be had for $89. Through Ticketmaster, too. All of them even include seats.

It's only been a half-dozen years, but the NHL's outdoor market has cooled considerably, several experts said.

And while the Penguins expect over 60,000 fans Feb. 25 against the Flyers -- quite possibly a 68,000-plus sellout, among the largest crowds that will have witnessed an outdoor game -- it's hard to avoid the reality that times have changed.

"Some of the gimmick or magic on outdoor ice is gone," Vanderbilt sports economist John Vrooman said. "The NHL's outdoor game is admittedly losing some of its fan buzz."

The problem has occurred because the NHL basically got too big for its britches.

After staging just five games in four years between 2008-11 -- starting with the Penguins trucking up to Buffalo to play the Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium -- there have been 15 over the past four.

It's led to an over-saturation of the market, zapping any shred of uniqueness. Stadium Series games have cropped up. The NHL has vacated the original, New Year's Day Winter Classic date.

All while trying to sell rivalries that are often trumped by mediocre hockey.

"The novelty has worn off," said John Clark, who's a professor of sport management at Robert Morris University. "Even if they constrict the number of games going forward, the novelty's still off.

"Once they overexposed -- if that's what we want to call it -- then the concept is done."

It's presented a challenge for the Penguins, but one they've actually conquered, a credit to some aggressive marketing and interest in the team that remains as high as ever.

"The novelty of a stadium game has taken a hit, but it's still an event," Clark said. "The Penguins are still popular here. And while the prices are lower, I'll bet you it will be well-attended or a flat sellout."

A steep drop 

The average ticket price to watch the Penguins and Capitals in 2011, according to TiqIQ, was $489.41. To walk in the door, it cost $238.

While acknowledging the Stadium Series is a rung below the Winter Classic in terms of prestige, the financial difference is striking.

Television ratings have also taken a hit.

In 2011, the Penguins and Capitals combined for a 22-percent increase over the 2010 Winter Classic with a 2.3 rating and 4.5 million viewers.

The 2017 iteration between the Blackhawks and Blues drew a 1.54 rating and 2.6 million viewers, the smallest audience for a Winter Classic on NBC. Stadium Series ratings have generally been a tick lower.

A shrinking TV audience is certainly something the NHL would like to correct, but it's also not the only factor at play, said Scott Branvold, another RMU professor of sport management.

"These games are built around a whole series of events with alumni games, high school games, college games, fan fests, open skates, practice sessions for kids, et cetera," Branvold said. "Some of those ancillary events may be as important for the sport as the hockey game itself."

'That never loses its novelty' 

The Penguins wanted an outdoor game to celebrate their 50th anniversary as a franchise and were not deterred by the challenge of hosting a second game at the same venue, something that's happening for the first time since 2008.

"We're in a little bit of uncharted territory, but we always try to bring unique and big events to the city if we can, be that the World Cup exhibition games, NCAA Frozen Four or a second NHL outdoor game," said Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan. "It shows off the city. It's a great showcase for the city. It's exciting for our fans to have these unique events.

"I think this year in particular, as we were planning a couple years back for the 50th anniversary, we wanted to have big events and thought it would be great to have an outdoor game return to Pittsburgh. For all of those reasons, we wanted this and continue to do so.

"We think it's good for the city and for the fan base and for our sponsors to have these kinds of events and bring these games to Pittsburgh."

Penguins COO Travis Williams said Monday that 60,000 tickets had been sold, and he was hopeful for a sellout.

One benefit, Williams pointed out, was the Stadium Series allowed for something the 2011 game did not: ancillary events, such as Robert Morris playing Niagara on Jan. 26, youth hockey games or charity events for the Mario Lemieux Foundation.

Those are the kinds of events Branvold said were so important.

"For us to be able to showcase and bring another major hockey event to the city and showcase the sport of hockey, that never loses its novelty," Williams said. "It's something we look forward to."

The goal should remain a sellout, the experts agreed, and attaining that has not been a problem, even as the number of people watching these games nationally drops.

"The ratings don't bother me as much," Clark said. "For one, it's the NHL. It's a terrible game to watch on TV anyway.

"The new consumption model of sport is being challenged. Traditional ratings shouldn't be the sole criteria for evaluating whether something's good or not."

So until people stop filling stadiums or ballparks, outdoor hockey probably isn't going anywhere.

"A half-empty stadium would probably change the frequency with which these games are held," Branvold said, later adding, "Tickets made have sold slower, but 60,000 at $100 makes for a pretty impressive gate just the same."

Why no switch? 

An easy tweak in other markets has been switching venues.

It's unclear whether an outdoor game would ever make its way to PNC Park, although Pirates VP of communications and broadcasting Brian Warecki did confirm there were "exploratory" discussions about hosting a game back in 2011 and that the Pirates remain interested.

Boston and Chicago, the other two-time hosts, went from Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, respectively, to Gillette Stadium and Soldier Field, respectively.

The Penguins would be doing the opposite: leaving behind a 60,000 gate for only 35,000 or so tickets told, a stark and costly drop for the NHL, which handles outdoor games, reimbursing the Penguins for a home game and keeping the rest.

Plus, the NHL appears pleased with the job that has been done at Heinz Field.

"There were a variety of factors that went into the decision to go back to Heinz Field for this game, not the least of which was overall satisfaction with our experience in 2011, and the productive and valuable working relationships we established at that time with stadium management," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email. "It was a good fit for us then, and we feel it will be just as good this time around."

Dan Craig, senior director of facilities operations for the NHL, cited the template that has already been developed at Heinz -- where to run piping, where the ice should sit to maximize viewing -- as reasons why a return makes sense.

Williams said switching to PNC Park would have unnecessarily boxed out eager customers.

"We've already sold 60,000 seats, so we would have sold out PNC Park and then some," Williams said. "We wanted to be able to bring it to as many fans as possible. Heinz Field is what made the most sense. They've hosted it before. They're familiar with it. It was an easy decision for us."

What do the players think? 

They're playing in it, right?

It's pretty much split inside the Penguins dressing room among those who are fine with having multiple outdoor games on the schedule and those who'd like it to be one and done.

Matt Cullen, 40, might have the most interesting case. Despite having more than 1,300 games on his NHL resume, Cullen has somehow has never played in an outdoor game.

"I've always wanted to play in ones," Cullen said. "They look so fun. I was really excited when I found out we had one this year. I'm really looking forward to it."

As excited as he is, though, Cullen considers himself a traditionalist and would love to see the NHL scale back to one a year.

"I think it adds a lot more to it when it's just the New Year's game," Cullen said. "I'm not complaining. I'm happy to play in it. But maybe if you did a couple games all in the same day, I think that New Year's Day is a cool day for it."

Eric Fehr is one of only a handful of players who took part in that 2011 game. Only Fehr, who scored twice, played for the Capitals.

Count him among the group who thinks one is enough.

"I feel like at times it can be overdone," Fehr said. "I understand it's a bit of a draw for the league to make some extra money or whatever, bring some more popularity to the game in the United States. I like it with one per year. Just make it extra special."

"Before, I wanted to see the game, I wanted to watch it," Marc-Andre Fleury said. "Now, I've seen enough. That's me, though. I'm sure it's exciting for fans to show up and go watch it live. It's different than going to the rink. To play, I like it a lot."

Many of the Penguins' American-born college players got a taste of outdoor hockey in college -- Nick Bonino at Boston University, Bryan Rust at Notre Dame, Brian Dumoulin at Boston College and Conor Sheary at UMass-Amherst.

Bonino played at Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium when he was with the Anaheim Ducks and loved it.

"Two totally different atmospheres but some of the coolest memories I have from the NHL," Bonino said. "I'm sure this will be a fun one, too."

Although he's not American-born, this will be Carl Hagelin's fifth outdoor game.

Hagelin used some simple logic to argue against having just one a year: The majority of players like them, and to appease the workforce, it's going to take a long time doing one a season.

"Everyone wants to play in it, so you're hoping it's your team," Hagelin said. "If you want everyone to play in it, you're going to have to play more than one game a year. Hopefully it brings in some revenue for the league, which is always good. It's a fun time."