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Rigorous Preparation Rewarded As 2019 Winter Classic Generates High Ratings

The 2019 Bridgestone Winter Classic drew the best ratings the event has had in four years, thanks to a lot of hard work between the NHL and Notre Dame.

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It’s safe to say the Winter Classic has become one of the National Hockey League’s best traditions. This year’s edition between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins contained added intrigue as the event was played at one of the most hallowed outdoor venues in sport: Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

It turns out, the engagement results were interesting too.

The 2019 Bridgestone Winter Classic, played on New Year’s Day, drew a sizable television audience with a 1.94 overnight rating, according to NBC Public Relations. That’s the best rating the event has had in four years and was up from a 1.4 rating in 2014. 

Across NBC, NBCSports.com, and the NBC Sports app, the game averaged a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of nearly three million viewers (2.968 million), forging a 20 percent increase compared to last year’s game, according to Fast National Data from Nielsen, and digital data from Adobe Analytics.

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Considering the marketing efforts leading up to the Winter Classic, stakeholders certainly earned the whopping number of eyes. From an operations standpoint, the work involved in setting up the event — a complex process involving mass cross-functional collaboration — also paid off as the ice looked great from the stands and on television.

To prepare the stadium, it was an intensive process not only for the NHL’s operations team, but for the Notre Dame facilities crew as well. 

First, the field was cleared of its goalposts and any other objects on the field. Then, Notre Dame’s grass field was protected by panels of a thick overlay. After that, the rink was built in the middle of the football field. The NHL brought in special refrigeration units to create layers of ice that reportedly set in over the course of about eight days and reached a depth of about two total inches, according to the South Bend Tribune.

While the physical transformation of the stadium took just over a week, the Notre Dame hockey program and the university had been working hand-in-hand with the NHL to make this event happen. Notre Dame Director of Athletic Communications for Men’s Ice Hockey Dan Colleran explained further.

“Once University Vice President James E. Rohr and Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick worked with the NHL to bring the game to Notre Dame Stadium, our Senior Associate Athletics Director, Business Operations/Hockey Administrator, Tom Nevala, had been a key cog in working with the NHL.

“From the team’s perspective, all support units such as equipment, sports medicine, operations, facilities and communications had been involved since the summer with various meetings, conference calls and site visits to help out our counterparts with both teams and the NHL offices.”

In addition to hosting the game this past Tuesday, the Notre Dame men’s hockey team will face Michigan this coming Saturday in the outdoor stadium. The Irish will also wear special uniforms that pay tribute to the program’s 50-year history.

One unique challenge that will come from the pro game being played on the first of the month and the college game being played on the fifth is the fact that students will not be back on campus for a couple weeks.

“With the games right in the middle of break, there certainly will be fewer students able to attend,” Colleran added.

READ MORE: Inside the NHL’s Evolution as a Digital Media Company 

Regardless, it turned out that attendance at the Winter Classic was still very high. The game attracted a sellout crowd of 76,126 — the second-highest attendance in the event’s history next to Michigan Stadium’s 105,491 in 2014. This can be attributed to, among other things, the university’s proximity to Chicago and the upper Midwest’s strong connection to hockey. 

The average attendance for the Winter Classic after 11 games is now 58,663.

This past week’s crowd size is a huge jump from 2018, in which the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres brought in 41,821 fans at Citi Field in Queens. Stadium capacity certainly plays a major role in these totals, but it’s impressive nonetheless that the NHL can pack any venue for this yearly spectacle.

Between the high ratings, strong engagement, and the amount of interest this year’s game created, look for the NHL to pursue more college football stadiums as host sites for future outdoor events.

Joe is currently a freelance marketing professional, writer, and podcaster. His work can also be found on the SB Nation network. Joe earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Louisville in 2014 and a master's degree in sport administration from Seattle University in 2017. He can be reached via email at joe@frntofficesport.com.

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MLB Grit Invitational Aims to Help Foster Women’s Baseball at Youth Level

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More than 60 teenage women will take the field at the Texas Rangers Globe Life Park this weekend as part of the MLB Grit invitational.

Major League Baseball and USA Baseball have partnered to host the high school invitational for girls who play baseball, bringing the players together for games, development and speakers. MLB Grit is building on the league’s other keystone women’s baseball events: The Trailblazer Series and Breakthrough Series.

Play begins Friday at Globe Life Park and finishes with games at Rangers MLB Youth Academy on Sunday.

MLB Grit is tournament style and will have a lot more gameplay than other the other two events, said Kim Ng, MLB senior vice president of baseball and softball development.

Ng said the league hopes to further develop a strong international community in women’s baseball.

“Right now, we’re seeing individual girls on boys baseball teams at the high school level,” Ng said. “It’s not just bubbling, this sport has had women involved for some time now. I think it’s starting to open some eyes. Youth participation in baseball has been part of Commissioner Manfred’s platform and agenda, and it’s important to us.

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“In a lot of ways, this is an underserved group and we want to provide some opportunities. It’s not a large group, but very vocal and we felt it was important to give some attention and put some attention to it.”

The MLB Grit roster includes participants from 21 states, Washington D.C., Canada and Puerto Rico, including five players from national teams. Team USA is represented by Ashton Lansdell and Emily Tsujikawa; Team Puerto Rico by Eva Cristina Torres Vega and Canada by Allison Schroeder and Liz Gilder.

Canada and Puerto Rico will each have eight players in Dallas.

Coaching the girls on the field this weekend will be a range of former big leaguers and women’s national team members, ranging from former MLB infielder Homer Bush and former MLB pitcher Marvin Freeman to eight current and former members of the USA Baseball Women’s National Team, including Malaika Underwood, Tamara Holmes, Donna Mills, Shelby Estocado, Meggie Meidlinger, Alex Oglesby, Ila Borders and A.J. Hamilton.

Also in attendance will be Robin Wallace, a former MLB scout and member of the Women’s National Team and current associate coordinator of baseball development with MLB.

Ng said along with Trailblazers and Breakthrough series, MLB Grit has potential to be another signature event for women’s baseball, and the league representatives will continue to have an open mind moving forward in how to continue furthering the sport.

The MLB Grit weekend is also a time for many of the great stories of the girls who play high school baseball to be on a platform, Ng said.

READ MORE: Minor League Baseball Connects Women to Help ‘Lift’ Careers

“Just think about how they’re most likely the only girl playing on their high school team; that takes a lot of courage to be different, noticeably different,” she said. “This is a sport you can be different and it’s important to help them and provide them a place to be themselves.”

The weekend will also feature three speakers to help inspire the girls in attendance: Fox Sports Network Rangers reporter Emily Jones McCoy; Rangers Executive Vice President and General Counsel Katie Pothier; and Rangers Senior Software Developer Kim Eskew.

“For many of our youth events, we try to get speakers to come talk about different themes and obstacles they’ve overcome to really open the kids’ minds,” Ng said. “It gives them a perspective to see these people as role models in their careers or in terms of the adversity they faced and needed to overcome.

“This is a potential pipeline for us, so we’re introducing them to these women, influential women who have overcome a lot and associated with baseball and Major League Baseball.”

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Stadium Series PreGame Shows Off NHL Partnership Growth

NHL executives are excited about the growth of brand partners in a robust marketing calendar, exemplified by this year’s Stadium Series in Philadelphia.

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The NHL continues to build on its robust marketing calendar and the brand partner support behind the events, like this weekend’s Stadium Series.

Saturday’s game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field will be the league’s 26th outdoor game since 2008, which has provided brand partners a unique way to connect with fans, said Evin Dobson, NHL Group vice president of partnership marketing. This year’s Stadium Series will have 16 activating sponsors, up from 10 last year, at the PreGame festivities.

“Franchises like the Winter Classic and Stadium Series offer built-in collaboration and support with prominent league partners,” Dobson said. “They celebrate the nostalgia and take fans back to the sport’s roots of playing on frozen ponds and rivers — and the partners rally behind them as marketing platforms and touch the fans in ways not normally available.”

Part of this year’s activating partner growth is based on the overall growth of partnerships, as the league has added eight in the past 10 months.

“Looking at this year’s cast of partners, there’s a strong presence from the heavy activators that always show up and support,” Dobson said. “Then this year, there’s a couple new ones activating and reinforcing that these jewel events are a great moment to associate themselves with.”

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The Stadium Series title sponsor Coors Light will continue its activation, led by a responsibility station, promoting responsible drinking. There also will be its upcycled bar, which is made with used products including hockey pucks, sticks, nets and skate blades. Behind it are guest bartenders passing out Silver Bullets, including former Flyers star Jeremy Roenick.

Coors Light will also be one of several sponsors with “stick-in-hand” activations, allowing fans to practice their hockey skills.

Likewise, other established brand partners like Honda, Geico, Kraft-Heinz, Pepsi and Dunkin’ will be on site with activations. Others with stick activations include MassMutual’s hardest shot, New Amsterdam Vodka’s Bullseye Battle and NHL Network’s Target Practice into a stacked washer and dryer.

New partners, like Jagermeister, which is the official shot partner, will have its Shots on Goal tent, which includes a custom hockey shot stick —  much like the shot skis seen in bars across the country. The cold factor of the outdoor game plays well into the optimum chilled temperature of a Jagermeister shot, Dobson said, making it a playful partner.

Additionally, fellow new partner MGM Resorts will be hosting a luxury tailgating experience, which allows fans a reprieve from the cold in a “relaxing and inviting space” with games and giveaways.

Navy Federal Credit Union joins as the Official Military Appreciation Partner, also with a stick-in-hand activation and thematic highlights during the game.

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The NHL has continued to grow its partnership roster, but the strategy is not about the number, Dobson said. It is now pushing 40 partners overall in the U.S. and Canada, and the league’s partners are beginning to grab hold of the calendar of events. As Dobson said, many like to work six months or more in advance on plans for destination-based marketing platforms, programming promotions and engaging local constituencies.

The robust marketing calendar helps make the NHL a nearly year-round league, a macro business decision made more than a decade ago to help broaden and the partnerships, Dobson said.

Along with the partnership activation growth at the Stadium Series, the activation extensions are building across the board, like at the All-Star Game, which grew from 17 to 23 partnership activations this year in San Jose.

Right now, Dobson believes the growing number of strong brand partnerships signifies the strength of the NHL business.

“We focus on category exclusive rights that are delivering value and not diluting over time,” Dobson said. “We’re not focused on numbers. As long as partners give us positive feedback, we don’t think we have an over-saturation.”

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A Giant Race for a Giant Market: Giants Enterprises Engages Active Consumers

Giants Enterprises’ ideas have served as a catalyst for organizations to dive into the active engagement lifestyle, which is heavily important to consumers.

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If you have been involved in baseball, odds are you might have ran the bases at a minor or major league ballpark before as part of a fan promotion. But what if the fun did not have to stop there, and you had access to run on the field and experience the major league ballpark from a different perspective? 

Well, Giants Enterprises — the entrepreneurial business arm to the San Francisco Giants — has you covered with its annual Giant Race Series. Taking place every spring and through the season, the organization holds these walk/run events, combined with baseball, in various West Coast cities.

As a whole, Giants Enterprises helps businesses and organizations throw one-of-a-kind experiences at Oracle Park, throughout San Francisco, on the Bay, and across the country. The group bridges the sports and entertainment gap outside of the 162-game season.

“San Francisco is interesting,” said Brian Kennedy, race director, Giant Race Series. “There is a lot of health and wellness in the Bay Area, and this just made sense.”

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Running and baseball make sense, but why specifically hill-ridden San Francisco? According to Runners World, San Francisco is the No. 1 running city in the United States, creating a great fit.

At its base, the Giant Race is the ultimate fan-interaction event with the San Francisco Giants and their minor-league affiliates, spanning multiple Giants markets in California and Arizona.

Beginning during spring training, with tours through Scottsdale, San Jose, and Sacramento, the event culminates at Oracle Park with 30,000-plus participants.

“Scottsdale is like an adult spring break,” joked Kennedy. “And this is a good way to get back into the swing of baseball. Three-fourths of our Giants fanbase wants to travel down for spring training, so we give them a unique experience.”

Kennedy and his team know that this physical interaction with the San Francisco Giants brand is easy and one of the best ways to bolster their own mission of being San Francisco’s leader in creating innovative, entrepreneurial events, and in commercializing major events and venues.

“We’re authentically connecting fans through health and wellness,” said Kennedy. “The race is an incredible platform for the organization to engage with fans and supporters on the active lifestyle front.”

The individual markets are saturated with people, while San Jose is a top-10 market city and Sacramento is a 35th largest city — both claiming Giants baseball passions while maintaining their MiLB ties.

The Giants organization and Giants Enterprises have worked together for years with running enthusiasts to create this experience all season long, and 2019 marks the 10-year anniversary.

“The race series has grown to four races servicing over 30K run/walkers each year in four markets,” said Kennedy. “In 2019, however, we look to debut the first-ever, inside-the-park full marathon event on the warning track of Oracle Park.”

The organization knows its races do a great job of connecting like-minded individuals in the Bay Area, boasting a 40-percent retention rate from year to year with word-of-mouth expression being the forerunner of advertising in the running community.

“We are the leader in the MLB,” said Kennedy. “We haven’t found another sports team with a series of races across four different markets impacting people and 30,000 runners.”

Even the races’ main corporate sponsorship takes after their baseball and active brand. Alaska Airlines sponsors the races and serves as the official airline of the Giants, along with its other health and wellness endeavors.

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Alaska Airlines most prominently sponsors the MLS’s Portland Timbers and is involved in the Pacific Northwest’s sports demographic too.

Nailing down a strong and trusted brand with its audience and potential audiences is vital moving forward for Giants Enterprises; to the group, it’s all about making the most sense to consumers.

“They [Alaska Airlines] are a strong partner with Giants baseball,” said Kennedy. “They help move Giants fans across America and participate in health and wellness.”

However, the Giants are not the only health and wellness-oriented ball club, as the Pittsburgh Pirates are hosting their “Pirates Home Run 5K/10K” in April 2019.

Certainly, Giants Enterprises did not create the baseball community involvement, but its ideas have served as a catalyst for other organizations to dive into the active engagement lifestyle, which is heavily important to consumers.

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