The start of a sports season is a time of great anticipation for fans and the media. For decades Major League Baseball was the benchmark for Opening Days. They had a great tradition with the Cincinnati Reds always being the first National League team to play on Monday to open the season. Just the term “Opening Day” was synonymous with baseball. But a couple of years ago MLB did away with the Cincy tradition so they could open the season on Sunday night for TV purposes. As a result, Opening Day has lost its meaning in baseball, as it is now Opening Night.
Right around the same time, the NFL has taken their season opener to a new level by kicking off the season on the Thursday prior to the first weekend, and pitting the defending Super Bowl champions against an attractive opponent.
One leage creates a new tradition while another league waters theirs down.
Which brings us to the National Hockey League. The NHL has inarguably been struggling for a couple of years now, but I’ve praised them in the past for trying to shake things up with their outdoor games. This year they decided to have four teams kick off their regular seasons in Europe. The Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 featured Pittsburgh & Ottawa in Stockholm and Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers in Prague.
The NHL is in a tough situation. There season starts at the same time as the Major League Baseball playoffs are getting started and college and pro football are in full swing. They compounded this by playing these games on weekend afternoons (US Eastern time) when football owns the sports fans viewing time. As a result, a strong sports (and casual hockey fan) like myself competely misseed this rather innovative idea. When the NFL had a regular season game in London last year it was a huge story. Likewise when the Red Sox and Oakland A’s kicked off this season in Japan – big news.
My hunch is that starting the NHL season in Europe did little to intrigue the non-hockey fan. How did it play with the NHL hardcore? I don’t know, but some fans lost out on a home game and the excitement of being at the first game of the season.
I applaud the NHL for trying something new, but the start of the season is a powerful opportunity, I’m not sure this moved the NHL brand forward.