On New Year’s Day, the National Hockey League will play its annual Winter Classic — that’s the one day a year that NHL hockey is played outside, on a rink in a football stadium that’s constructed in a couple of weeks and used precisely once. I was in Pittsburgh for Christmas, and went to Heinz Field to see the Steelers-Panthers game, and got to see the practice rink that was built just outside the stadium; following that game, the gridiron turf would be covered by ice.
I’m not hugely opposed to two-sport arenas — the cookie-cutter baseball-football stadia of the ’70s may have been ugly, but they were serviceable, and terrific baseball was played in them. But I’m glad that baseball hasn’t gotten into trying to build a stadium that has to be demolished a week later. The Winter Classic is a fine idea, and it has proven a ratings boon, but one has to mention: isn’t it gigantically wasteful to build a huge hockey rink that, simply by virtue of its being on a football field, can only be used once?
Inaugurated in 2008, the Winter Classic has proven a ratings boon, garnering the highest ratings of any regular-season NHL game. In fact, it’s so fantastically successful, writes Ken Belson of the New York Times, that “The success of the Winter Classic is a big reason why the N.H.L.’s revenue has risen 85 percent over the past four years.” It’s certainly a compelling premise, combining the massive capacity of most football coliseums with the gimmick of seeing professional hockey played outside.
But that gimmick comes with its own hazards. For example, this year’s game is threatened by a forecast of rain and unseasonably warm temperatures, though the NHL has announced that it will not postpone the game. The Steelers-Panthers game I attended was last Thursday, and the Steelers are at Cleveland this Sunday, which means the rink constructors had a week and a half to build the rink, and they’ll have a few days to dismantle it before the NFL playoffs require Heinz Field’s turf to be available for football. So that’s why the NHL was unwilling to consider postponement.
Baseball has never considered a step this drastic — building a one-use stadium that must be demolished after a single game — though it has pursued other exotic locales for games. In 2003 and 2004, the soon-to-be-orphaned Montreal Expos played a number of regular season games in the small Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2000, 2004 and 2008, the first regular season games of the year were played in Tokyo; in 1999, the season opener was in Monterrey, Mexico, and in 2001, the season opener was in San Juan. The World Baseball Classic has opened up even more venues to baseball.
To its credit, though, Major League Baseball has used parks that were already standing. The Tokyo Dome is one of the most prominent stadiums in Japan, so there was good reason to play there. Moreover, though Hiram Bithorn Stadium only seats 18,000, the stands were raucously packed, and the Expos drew more fans per game in San Juan than they had done all year in Montreal.
In fairness, it’s not a completely valid analogy. Baseball is already an outdoor sport that’s occasionally played indoors — unlike professional hockey, an outdoor sport that’s always played indoors — so there is no parallel gimmick to attract fans on the basis of seeing baseball played in a different context. (Though you could probably have a similar effect by getting fans to vote on whether the walls should be moved in or out for just one day, so you could turn Petco into Fenway, or vice versa. Maybe they could call it the “Park Effect Classic.”) But even still, wouldn’t it be better to build a rink in a place where you could keep it? I’m not a flaming environmentalist, but the Winter Classic’s carbon footprint can’t exactly be neutral.
I don’t begrudge the NHL its ratings, and following the lockout, the league needs all the help it can get. But I’m glad that, as crass as MLB’s money grabs have often seemed, they haven’t come to the point of building a park just to tear it down two weeks later. I don’t often get to praise Bud Selig for restraint, but here goes: thanks for holding back on this one, Bud.