If the NHL players strike again, the NHL may not be able to recover the fans and revenue that it will lose after an entire lost season.
The National Hockey League Players Association is striking for the second time in 10 years. However, the demands from both sides have changed between the two lockouts. In 2004, the owners wanted to link player salaries to revenues and enforce a salary cap, which they got. Last year’s salary cap was $64.3 million, rising from the 2005-06 season which had a cap of $39 million. This was the main issue that killed the season for the NHL.
Currently, the owners want to reduce the player sharing revenues from 57 percent to 46 percent, thus lowering the salaries by 11 percent. They are also debating setting the minimum length of a minimum rookie contract to five years and setting a maximum length of contracts with new teams to five years. The final major issue is moving the amount of service time required to become an unrestricted free agent to 10 years instead of seven.
The demands from the owners are downright insane. Though almost 60 percent of revenue going to players is a little high, 50-50 is not a bad deal for either side. Lengthening the time it takes to become an unrestricted free agent and lengthening minimum contracts limits players’ ability to negotiate a fair contract. The longer that these negotiations continue, both sides will lose money. But it’s the owners that are the ones in the hot seat rather than the players.
The players have begun to prepare for the lockout by signing with teams in other leagues. A lot of the younger players have gone down the AHL and the junior leagues. The more experienced veterans have begun to sign with European teams, including Alex Ovechkin, who signed with Dynamo Moscow on Sept. 19 for nearly $5.7 million.
After the 2004 lockout, the NHL knew it had to change or it would permanently lose all of the fans that had begun to follow other sports during the lockout. They changed rules to make the game play at a faster pace and began to make it more accessible to an American audience. With higher scoring games, more odd man rush chances and more big time moves, the NHL completely revamped itself to meet the new viewer.
The NHL also made the players more accessible and well-known. Before the 2004 lockout, other than hockey fans, no one could name more than a few players. Now Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin are household names, and most people can name a couple of players on the team in their area.
The way the sport is marketed in America is arguably the best it has ever been. It could get a little more coverage on SportsCenter and it wouldn’t hurt seeing a couple more regular season games on the U.S. networks, but the way NBC covered this past Stanley Cup was phenomenal. They covered nearly every single first and second round game, as well as every semi-final and final round game. The coverage is exponentially better than it was eight years ago. Back then the Stanley Cup final wasn’t even broadcast on most networks.
The NHL will not be able to survive another completely locked-out season because hockey is in a delicate state already. With European football trying to break into the American market, the NHL will most likely lose some fans to them. Some others will probably turn to basketball, whose season runs parallel with hockey and still others will turn to football, like I did.
Another aspect that the owners and Gary Bettman need to think about is that the players do not need the NHL to continue playing. There are plenty of leagues around the world that are looking for the high level talent that the NHL has. With all the empty time slots from the NHL, the networks might begin to televise more AHL games.
If Gary Bettman wants the NHL to keep functioning under his demands, he might want to start gathering up the owners and teaching them to skate.