Finding the All-Star formula

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a fan of All-Star games. While it’s nice to bring all of a league’s best talent under one roof for a friendly, the game is more often than not a yawner for fans. There may be high-flying dunks, skate-to-stick dangles, and dingers for miles, but it lacks any sort of intensity. It’s basically a glorified spring training game. And I think it’s pretty safe to assume that I’m not alone when it comes to my view on All-Star games.

That’s because, in recent years, there’s been no lack of imagination as pro sports leagues have tried to breathe some new life into their annual All-Star weekend. In 2011, the NHL introduced a new format, replacing the traditional conference teams with a fantasy draft. For eleven years now, the MLB All-Star game has decided home-field advantage in the World Series. For the NBA All-Star game, the league rolls out the red carpet at half as the latest chart topper hits the stage for a performance. And every pro sports league has adopted or at least experimented with fan voting.

It’s all about finding the perfect storm. Because if you can come up with a winning formula, the payoff can be substantial as we’ve seen with the NHL’s annual Winter Classic. The right event can drive big ticket revenues, merchandise sales (with special edition jerseys), ink marquee sponsors, and increase exposure with lucrative TV deals. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem that any league has found the right ingredients yet when it comes to their All-Star game format. However, thanks to an announcement by the American Hockey League (AHL) earlier this month, I believe that may be onto something.

In early September, the AHL announced that the 2014 AHL All-Star Classic will be held out east in St. John’s, Newfoundland – home of the St. John’s IceCaps (the Winnipeg Jets farm team). In the past, the AHL has experimented with a number of formats for their Classic ranging from pitting each conference against each other to the league’s best Canadian players facing off against the league’s best players from the rest of the world (the normal stuff). However, in 2014, the league will be doing something totally new as League President Dave Andrews announced that the AHL All-Stars will host Färjestad BK, one of the top professional teams in the Swedish Hockey League, in a two-day event including a Skills Competition on Tuesday, Feb. 11 and the All-Star Game on Wednesday, Feb. 12. Talk about rolling the dice. But, it’s for all the right reasons.

It’s now an event that matters for a number of reasons:

  1. The unknown: This game actually means something, which is usually the core issue with All-Star games. The AHL players will have never seen or played Färjestad BK. Same goes for Färjestad BK. There will be a ton of pride on the line as neither team will want to get embarrassed – especially the AHL All-Stars as they’re a host league All-Star team playing an independent Euro team. This all equals a unique, entertaining game for all fans in attendance and watching at home.
  2. TV: This game will be broadcast live across Canada on Sportsnet and throughout North America and Europe through network stations and webcasts. The reach for this is substantial, but what makes it even more so for the AHL is the fact that the game will be taking place during the NHL’s Olympic break. That means that it will be the biggest pro hockey game happening in North America at the time. And if that wasn’t enough, the All-Star game happens before Olympic hockey gets underway. Add to the fact that this is a concept game that will actually get the average hockey fan excited (regardless if they’ve ever seen the AHL before), and you’ve got a winner. It’s an “us” vs. “them” game so I’m really interested to see how the TV ratings shake out for this.
  3. Tickets: the game is being hosted in St. John’s, a city that got an AHL back two years ago and has sold out every game since. Using St. John’s as a stress test for this format makes a lot of sense. The game is bound to sellout at a premium. That lowers the league’s risk of the event bleeding money. And given the potential exposure this event will create for the league, you don’t want to risk having a lot of fans dressed up as seats on national TV. If the event is a success, it’ll likely catch the eye of some of the league’s bigger markets, allowing the league to scale the event in years to come.
  4. Exposure: I don’t know this for certain, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the AHL is not heavily followed up parts of Europe. This event allows the AHL to showcase its league on a national and international level. This could grow the league’s following, and make it more attractive to European talent as a choice destination for minor pro hockey. And as I mentioned previously, the AHL rarely makes waves in the media unless there’s an NHL lockout. This unique event during an Olympic break gives the AHL an opportunity to grab headlines in Canada during a non-lockout year. This will help in NHL markets that are also home to AHL teams.

All-in-all, I believe the stars are aligning for this to be a big event for the AHL. I’ll be following up on this story in February as I’ll be attending the game in St. John’s. What are your thoughts on the AHL All-Star announcement? Yay or nay? Excited or not? Let me know via email or on Twitter @SportsBizCanada.

Adam Puddicombe

Adam Puddicombe is a digital marketing professional who, by day, works in the ad agency world, and by night, covers the intersection of Canadian sports, media, and technology. Adam holds a degree in commerce, with a focus in marketing, and previously worked for Hockey Night in Canada’s Play On! and the St. John’s Fog Devils of the QMJHL. Follow him on Twitter @adampuddicombe.