Outdoor Hockey: My Interview with NHL Chief Bettman

Tomorrow afternoon will be the one day of the year I will be watching hockey as the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings play outside at Wrigley Field (1pm ET on NBC). The Bridgestone Winter Classic is the talk of the town and hockey, when put outdoors, has actually managed to get some big-time buzz. This morning, I spoke with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about the game.

Darren Rovell: The buzz around this is amazing. About 240,000 people entered a lottery to get tickets?

Gary Bettman: For about 5,000 tickets because most of the tickets went to season ticket holders for the Blackhawks and the Red Wings. The buzz is what it's all about. This is a unique opportunity for us to take the game back to its roots. To get hockey fans -- no matter who their favorite team is -- to focus on the game and casual sports fans as well.

DR: Are you surprised at how big this became? Last year's game became the most watched in a decade.

GB: Most watched in a regular season in a decade, yes. We had 72,000 people outdoors watching the game in the snow and all of those seats sold out in about 20 minutes. There's a lot of anticipation and excitement because it's a lot of fun to watch.

DR: How do you bottle this up? It's a catch-22 because you have it and then people start saying Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park. Let's do this 15 times a year.

GB: Well, 15 times a year would probably take away its uniqueness.

DR: So how much can you do it?

GB: We've been focused on one a year. I think more than that, two would be the limit. But I’m not even focusing on doing it more than one. There is no shortage a of interest. We've had at least a dozen clubs say “we would love to do this in our market -- our fans would just absolutely love it.” Last we played in a football stadium, this year in Wrigley Field. To play the Bridgestone Winter Classic in a stadium that is almost 100 years old that's had virtually every event except, until now, a hockey game.

DR: You've also sold 25,000 of the sweaters of the jerseys they're going to be wearing.

GB: Yes, retro jerseys. We've been okay in the economic downturn, we've signed up a couple new sponsors in the last couple of month, including a car company, Honda. Our fans tend to be the most connected to our game than the fans in any other sport. They hang in there with us. We've been in discussions before about how strong we came back from the year off from the work stoppage. We've had three years in a row of record attendance and record revenues; I think we're going to do it again this year.

DR: Let's talk about Phoenix. The owner Jerry Moyes, owns Swift Transportation, there's a lot of reports on whether the league is helping them get a cash infusion or whether they're going to be bankrupt. A lot of things out there. What is the truth on that?

GB: I don't believe they're going to be bankrupt. They're not going to miss any payroll. There always seems to be in this sector of the business world a lot of rumor and speculation. They've got some challenges but we think they'll be okay.

DR: Is the league supporting the team financially right now?

GB: It's not unusual for a club to get advances against money that the league typically has for clubs, but Phoenix will be okay.

DR: Turning to the economy, you guys have not announced any layoffs unlike the NBA or NFL. What's your outlook?

GB: We expect real revenue growth for the season. A lot of people, particularly hockey business writers, suggest I'm being Pollyannish or naïve. The fact is this season we'll be okay. But next season is a function of what happens to the economy and our first indications will be the sale of playoff tickets and renewals for next season.

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