What the NHL Can’t Afford

Luxury is a key word in the world of sports. There’s a luxury tax in baseball and basketball, some teams have the luxury of being in a location like New York, or Los Angeles, or Miami that draw in free-agents; then there’s the luxury of popularity.

In America, we also have the luxury of having “The Big Four” – a phrase given to the four most popular sports in the US and Canada, which would be football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

As of 2011, football was the leading sport in both revenue ($11 billion)and in attendance with an average of 65 thousand people trekking to the stadium to take up a voice in the howling crowd, on their feet for every third down and pressure-filled moment. Football has its own network, a film company, and many fanatic fans who tune in every Sunday to watch their team.

Football was even able to withstand the debacle in the Seahawks-Packers game this past season where a game that meant so much was decided by officials who were the backups, the B-team.

Football was able to withstand – because it had the luxury of being popular.

Hockey does not have that luxury.

The National Hockey League makes a little more than a third of the NFL ($3.3 billion) annually and draws a crowd that is under 17,000 people. To put that in perspective – an average NHL audience could fit four crowds from its games into an NFL game.

The sub-par showing of hockey is not to be unexpected – and both hockey’s players and owners have only themselves to blame.

The 2012-13 season was the fourth time in twenty years that hockey has either been postponed, delayed, or – in the case of atrocity in 2004-05 – an entire season has been canceled. And of those four lockouts, three have been in the last 18 years and all have seen Commissioner Gary Bettman preside over them.

Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) have been a large problem in sports for the last few years. The NBA and NFL both locked out their players in 2011 – the NFL for the offseason and the NBA delayed their start to Christmas day.

A salary cap has been one of the largest issues in the CBAs of the past few years and in 2004-05, “The year without the Stanley Cup,” the NHL owners outlasted the players and an exasperated America and finally imposed a cap on their league. With those money issues now aside, the NHL thought it had turned the corner.

They were incorrect.

Revenue sharing and the disparity between how much NHL teams are worth and how much money they make has become a real problem.

Right now the two richest teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs ($1 billion) and the New York Rangers ($750 million), are exponentially more valuable than the bottom-feeders in the hockey-poor markets of St. Louis with the Blues at $130 million and in Phoenix, whose Coyotes are worth a mere $134 million.

Making money is even more of an issue, in fact, according to Forbes – three teams make up 83% of the entire NHL’s income. That’s unbelievable; one-tenth of the league contributes 83% of revenue. Furthermore, according to Forbes, some franchises like the Carolina Hurricanes, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets have trouble even breaking even.

Especially unfortunate for hockey fans is that the NHL was coming of a majorly successful year in which its business was at its peak of all time and the revenue hit a new record for the seventh consecutive year. Then, the lockout happened.

The NHL has to stop doing themselves; they can’t get out of their own way. Every time hockey makes a run at popularity and people begin to notice the men on frozen ice-sheets, a lockout happens; the NHL alienates fans, makes people disinterested and they fail to expand on their previous expansion. The NHL is leaving money on the table.

An idea is that the teams from unappreciative hockey towns in Arizona, North Carolina and Florida should be relocated to the Great White North and to our Canadian neighbors and to the Northwest US; because, if anything is clear, the NHL needs to make more money – which, besides putting the puck past the goaltender, is the main objective.

If anything can be taken from the lockouts that the NHL has had to experience over the last two decades, it cannot be that the owners are evil and selfish or that the players are greedy; it cannot even be that the common fan needs their hockey (although they do).

The thing that can be taken is this: hockey cannot afford to have lockouts – literally. With every day this fall, and the beginning of the winter, that stadiums remained empty, players remained away and owners spent in negotiation in New York they waste days to make money.

And that’s a luxury the National Hockey League does not have.

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