What's a Hockey Game Worth?

Today's NHL Winter Classic has netted cities as much as $36 million in revenue and Philadelphia is hoping to exceed that record

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"Every day is a great day for hockey," the great Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mario Lemieux is known for saying. And if this year’s NHL Winter Classic lives up to previous editions, Monday will be a great day for Philadelphia’s tourism coffers.

The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers are facing off outdoors at Citizen’s Bank Park in the annual New Year’s contest that has meant as much as $36 million in revenues to its host city, including ticket sales, hotel rooms, sales of souvenir sweatshirts and restaurant tabs. (This year’s game, which will begin at 3 pm EST, was moved forward a day so as not to compete with bowl games on network television.)

That’s how much Boston reaped in 2010, when 38,112 people braved the elements to watch the Bruins beat the Flyers in overtime at Fenway Park.

Last year’s game, held at Heinz Park in Pittsburgh, wasn’t quite that lucrative. Revenues there were about $22 million, even 68,111 fans attended, says Craig Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for Visit Pittsburgh, the city’s tourism agency.

The lower tally was due to the fact that about half the spectators were from the Pittsburgh area and spent only $34 a day on game-related expenses, or about $6.1 million.

Out of town fans, however, spent $93 a day, or about $16 million, on everything from parking to hotel rooms and restaurant meals, he says. Souvenir sales were especially brisk.

And then there are the less tangible benefits. "We get bragging rights," Davis says. "The NHL thought enough of Pittsburgh to put it here, and we’re getting the NHL draft in June. There’s a certain type of publicity that you just can’t buy. It gave the city a wonderful spin."

The revenue and high profile on a day when a stadium otherwise would be empty explains the long list of places vying to host the Winter Classic, which began in 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium outside Buffalo. That year, some 72,000 fans – still the attendance record for an NHL game - withstood a snowy afternoon to watch the hometown Buffalo Sabres lose to the Penguins.

That record could fall if Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor is picked to host the game.

The Big House, as it’s known, already auditioned for the Winter Classic last year, when it held the Big Chill. Some 104,073 spectators, a record for any hockey game, watched the University of Michigan play Michigan State. Michigan will play another outdoor game on Jan. 15 in Cleveland, when it takes on Ohio State at Progressive Field.

But Ann Arbor could have some stiff Winter Classic competition from New York, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Denver, all said to want the game. There should be plenty of games to go around since the Winter Classic is on the NHL’s schedule through at least 2021.

About 44,000 seats were available for this year’s game in Philadelphia. But the city is hoping that its tourism take is at least as big as Pittsburgh’s, and hopes for as much as Boston’s.

"In addition to being a thrill for hockey fans everywhere, the event will have a significant economic impact on the region and put Philadelphia in the national spotlight throughout the week," says Larry Needle, executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, a division of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The official hotel block for the game is 3,300 rooms, says Cara Schneider, media relations director for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. Between the Mummer's Parade, held on New Year's Day, and the Winter Classic, many Philadelphia hotels are expected to be close to capacity.

Philadelphia’s outdoor rink will host three other games, including one featuring alumni of the two teams and an American Hockey League game. Flyers’ season ticket holders were required to buy a package with all three games, assuring the team would sell all the tickets it was allotted.

The demand for Winter Classic tickets has surprised some sports experts, who had dismissed hockey as a niche sport a few short years ago. But Davis, in Pittsburgh, says the allure of an outdoor game will always be strong in places when the sport is part of local culture.

Beyond that, these Winter Classic cities are keeping in mind how Buffalo center Gilbert Perrault once described hockey.

Its three important elements, Perrault said, are "forecheck, backcheck and paycheck."

About the Author

  • Micheline Maynard is journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She most recently led Changing Gears, a public radio project exploring the reinvention of the industrial Midwest, and was previously Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times.