The NHL is always looking to expand. Recently becoming a 32-team league, it might present an aura of success. More teams, more money, more exposure. Except when it really isn’t.
The NHL is the fourth major sport. No matter how much hockey die-hards would love to believe that isn’t the case, it is. However, a comedy of errors has come with Gary Bettman’s belief that the NHL is more popular than it is.
Bettman’s Losing Effort in the Desert
The most famous example of Gary Bettman’s comedy of errors has been the Arizona Coyotes.
While Bettman’s strategy of growing the sport in non-typical markets has not been a total failure, see Auston Matthews becoming an NHL-star, despite being born and raised in Arizona. The Coyotes failed to draw basic attendance to support a franchise. They could not be financially viable enough for the City of Glendale to allow them to lease their arena. They made a case to move to an area where they felt they would meet attendance goals.
That came with the demand for public money to fund a new arena, which the public supported as much as the Coyotes themselves. As such, they are now playing at the 5,000-seat arena used for Arizona State University hockey games.
Going from a 15,000-seat arena to one that only seats 5,000 is the most basic example of why the NHL needs to pull back, not expand.
A History of Work-Stoppages.
After an owner-imposed lockout to start the 2012 season, the league and the players were able to come to an agreement on a CBA that would save the season. It would also go a long way to save the sport as well. After the debacle that canceled the 2005 season, it was imperative that a deal was made.
The 2005 season destroyed any momentum the NHL had built during the mid to late 90s. There was a famous cover of Sports Illustrated that split between the NHL and the NBA.
The headline read “Why the NHL is hot, and the NBA is not.”
That was in 1994.
Ask anyone of my age (39) that owned a Sega Genesis at that time if they were playing NHL94. They were. In fact, NHL94 is widely regarded as the best sports video game ever. NHL94 was even featured in the cult-classic film “Swingers,” where Vince Vaughn and his buddies were busy making “Gretzky’s head bleed” before they went out for the night. Hockey was on a heater.
Most people forget the 94-95 lockout because it resulted in a shortened season. Ironically, when play resumed for 53 games instead of the then 84 games, the NHL enjoyed a good run of unprecedented success. Remember that number: 84.
The lockout of 04-05 was the nail. It canceled an entire season. The owners desperately wanted a salary cap. The out-of-control spending by teams such as the Red Wings meant that lesser teams were not competitive. After 04-05, the NHL owners, led by noted and recognized scumbag owner of the Bruins Jeremy Jacobs, got their wish. The cap was instituted. The year-off led to a precipitous drop in the league’s popularity and the loss of TV partners.
Contraction is Key, Not Expansion.
Back to the number 84.
This past week during the board of governors meetings at the ritzy Breakers Resort in Palm Beach, FL, the topic was not discussed. It’s expected to be raised during the owner’s meetings next year. The NHL and Bettman’s reasoning is adding two more “rivalry games.”
For those who may remember the 2012-13 season, it was shortened to 48 games. Instead of a long and grinding 82-game schedule, the quick and exciting pace of only 48 games was incredible. Much like the NFL, where “every game matters,” the meaningful nature of every game added an almost playoff-like feel to even a random Tuesday-night game.
NHL players are the lowest-paid of the four-major sports in North America. Stars of the NHL command a salary far lower than the other three. Most NHL fans would agree that the players are not paid enough for the demand and sacrifice placed on their bodies during an 82-game schedule.
I feel that lowering the amount of regular-season games to 56 is a fair compromise. If salaries are not going to reflect the astronomical levels of the other three major sports, then being paid the same amount for 32 fewer games seems like a fair deal.
Regular-season games would mean far more. Players’ salaries would better reflect their work-loads. They would be less likely to suffer injuries and also be healthier for the most important part of the NHL season; The Stanley Cup Playoff.
With that, the sport could continue its upward trend. Owners would complain that the lack of 32 extra games would make them lose money on ticket revenue and concessions.
If the sport becomes much more popular and the ratings go up, then the TV contract will as well. Look at your typical MLB game attendance in July.
Do you think players are being paid 10-year/$360 million-dollar contracts solely because of attendance? No. It’s all TV contracts.
Make the NHL a more popular product, and the ratings will follow, and so will the TV money. Expand the league’s expectations of popularity. Contract the idea that the only way for the owners to keep teams solvent is to over-saturate the season with meaningless games and gouge their fans for beer and sub-par food.
Bettman is the puppet and the problem. The owners aren’t helping.
The only people suffering are the player’s long-term health and the fans who support the game. The owners surely aren’t.
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