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Why Midwest cities love outdoor hockey games

CLEVELAND — On Sunday afternoon, I was one of the 25,864 people shivering in 27 degree temperatures at Progressive Field, watching the Frozen Diamond, a face off between the Michigan and Ohio State hockey teams.

The Wolverines won, 4-1 — perhaps not the outcome that Buckeyes fans hoped for, but the event made Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro happy. “Pretty cool, out there, isn’t it?” Shapiro told reportersbefore the game.

And no wonder: the Indians have turned what is normally an empty baseball park into a center for winter activities in Cleveland. The Frozen Diamond was the centerpiece of Snow Days, where patrons can skate, go tubing down an artificial outfield slope, and take part in other activities.

Cleveland was the latest Midwest city to use its stadium for an outdoor hockey match. And, it’s likely that more games are in our region’s future.

I’ve been to three in the past four years, including the 2009 Winter Classic at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, and the Big Chill at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor in 2010 which holds the record for the single biggest attendance for any hockey game.

Come to think of it, Michigan teams won all three games: the Red Wings beat the Blackhawks and Michigan beat Michigan State to go with its victory in Cleveland. (Okay, that’s cheating a little since a Michigan based team was going to win the Big Chill regardless.)

What makes these outdoor contests so attractive?

1) It’s hockey the way it was originally played. Purists call it “pond hockey” and there is an entire sports infrastructure in the U.S. and Canada devoted to these outside games. But, organized hockey is more often played indoors, at all hours, as hockey moms and dads can attest.

2) Fans feel they’re getting something unique. And, they’re willing to pay for it. Tickets for the Winter Classic run into the hundreds of dollars. Although we only paid $20 apiece for our Cleveland outfield tickets, thanks to a pre-sale code, we could have spent a lot more and admittedly gotten much better seats.

3) It’s incremental revenue. Baseball and football stadiums just sit empty in the winter. What team doesn’t want tens of thousands of fans paying good money to spend an afternoon there? And the proceeds are lofty: Boston tourism officials say the city grossed $36 million the year it held the Winter Classic. (Read my story on the economics of the Winter Classic in The Atlantic Cities.)

4) The games are great exposure. The Winter Classic, normally held on New Year’s Day (it was moved to Jan. 2 this year because of NFL playoff games) is on national television. The Frozen Diamond was broadcast on FoxSports outlets in Detroit and Cleveland, as well as the Big Ten network. Many shots show the city’s skyline, making frigid days look glamorous.

With the Frozen Diamond behind it,Michigan officialsare now talking to the NHL about hosting the Winter Classic at the Big House in 2013. There are a lot of complications to be ironed out, says athletic director David Brandon.

But, am I up for a fourth outdoor game? You bet.

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