Last Saturday night the National Hockey League locked out its players for the third time since 1994 and fourth time in 20 years, maybe finally nailing its coffin shut as a major market professional sports league.
And as a loyal hockey fan, that’s too bad.
The league has so much going for it – really. It’s a sport that combines the gracefulness of skating and the pure power and adrenaline of bone-crunching hits. It’s a combination of soccer and football. It’s adored by millions around the world. And all of that leaves so much potential in the United States for the sport.
There truly is nothing like going to a hockey game with nearly 20,000 people. I still remember the experience of my first hockey game back in the mid ’90s. Sitting with my father, I watched the San Jose Sharks – back in the days of Owen Nolan and Jeff Friesen – beat the New York Islanders 3-1. It was a sport unlike anything I had ever seen. It was fast, chaotic and graceful. I instantly fell in love with it.
After the past weekend, that love is almost all gone.
With all the potential in the world, the NHL continues to stunt its own growth by locking out its players nearly every 10 years. Who is to blame? The simple answer has to rest at its leadership.
Since Commissioner Gary Bettman took over the reins of the NHL, the league has seen a substantial growth in revenue and teams. Since Bettman’s first year on the job in 1993, the league has grown from 24 teams to 30 and the league’s revenue has jumped from $400 million to last year’s record of $3.3 billion, according to the Sports Business Journal.
All of that is good for the league, but the success is quickly negated because with so much work stoppage, any growth is hard to sustain. Instead, as MLB’s 1994 strike shows, It takes years to even match the previous levels of success
With fans that are small in numbers but large in enthusiasm, the NHL continues to give the fans every reason to leave the sport behind.
For a league that has struggled to find its spot in the competitive major sport market – out of the four major sports it generates the least amount of revenue – it continues to treat its fans as second-class and almost unworthy. After so many union issues over the years, the league should be rewarding those who stuck around.
Instead, they’ve done just the opposite. After nearly 20 years on the job, Bettman should know what his most important asset is. A hint, it isn’t the number of organizations.
It’s time to put aside those petty differences and reward the fans for their loyalty. Another year without the league and they might lose them all for good.
That doesn’t, though, just fall on the shoulders of Bettman and the 30 owners, but the players as well.
According to multiple reports about the negotiations, the major divisions between the two sides stem from how to split the overall revenue. Today, the NHL players take home 57 percent of every NHL dollar earned. That’s more than the NFL players. More than MLB players. Yes, it’s way too much. And the players should know this.
A middle ground – somewhere around a 50 percent revenue split – shouldn’t be hard to find. The owners, though, made a mistake by wanting to lower the players’ revenue down to nearly 40 percent, amplifying the dividing line between the two sides. Thus bringing us to the situation now, which is nowhere good.
Sadly, it’s only going to get worse from here, as the owners and the players stand strong in their defense. It’s going to be long and – quite possibly – another lost season, similar to seven years ago.
If the season is lost for a second time this century, It might be time for the NHL to pack it bags for good because of the catastrophic losses a missed season would bring. Already in fourth place out of the four major sports, the NHL can’t continuously laugh in the face of its fans and think everything will be fine at the other end.
It should not be the fans who are honored to the watch the sport. Instead, the sport should be honored to have fans watching it.
And one more lost season, they won’t have many more, including myself.