The NHL Is On Thin Ice
Total Pro Sports – Hockey has been a part of the sports world for 85 years with the establishment of the National Hockey League. The sport has had its up and downs, but has survived has one of the 4 largest sports in North America. Now the league is in financial trouble. With the decline of attendance, lack of national television coverage and increasing salary demands, the NHL is on the verge of extinction.
The NHL was gaining popularity in the US in the 1990’s. The league was scrambling to create a stronger following. The league signed a multi-million dollar TV contract with Fox. ESPN launched National Hockey Night. Also, many teams were searching for fans that may not be reached. Struggling teams searched for a new home. A successful move was when the Minnesota North Stars moved from snowy Minneapolis to Dallas in 1993. The North was dropped from the name and the Dallas Stars have become one of the league’s most successful franchises with a strong fan base. However, the move left fans in the state of 10,000 lakes out in the cold. Minnesota was granted an expansion franchise, the Minnesota Wild in 2000. The franchise even made a Stanley Cup run in the 2003-2004 season.
Hockey will always maintain popularity in Canada. Our neighbors to the north flock to games filling the arenas like Americans travel to football games in drones. However, declining revenue for smaller Canadian cities has caused teams from smaller communities to abandon their homes in the great white north for greener pastures south of the border. One example is the exodus of the Quebec Nordiques to Denver to form the eventual Stanley Cup Champion, Colorado Avalanche. The other and less popular move was the midnight departure of the Winnipeg Jets in 1996. The hockey world wondered why the Jets would leave the winter wonderland of Winnipeg for the high desert of Phoenix. Many players have remarked that the Coyote’s home ice; The Jobing.com arena is the worst in the league.
The Hartford Whalers, tired of being in the shadows of the Rangers and Bruins left Connecticut for North Carolina. These moves, combined with expansions to San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, Tampa and Atlanta caused the average attendance figures to drop 24% in 2001. This lack of attendance is because the new venues do not have a strong hockey tradition and support.
The height of the NHL’s popularity was 15 years ago. In 1994, the Stanley Cup finals rated higher in TV rankings than the previous year’s World Series. Average attendance tripled from the 1987-88 season to 1993-94. Since then, the league has gone down hill. The player’s began demanding higher pay and smaller franchises could not compete with the larger markets like New York, Montreal and Toronto. To make matters worse, the players were locked out due to failed negotiations between the Players’ Association, owners and the league over salary caps, changes in rules, profit sharing and a collective bargaining agreement in 2004. The lock out negated the 88th season of NHL hockey and led to the cancellation of the Stanley Cup. At the time of the lock out, teams had more than 76% of revenues invested in player salaries. Since then 4 teams have even filed for bankruptcy. The Pittsburgh Penguins have done it twice.
It is evident that the NHL is scrambling to improve its image and regain fans. Several rule changes were put into place that increased scoring numbers, eliminated ties and made the game more in line with international rules, like those used in Olympic competition. More rule changes may be on the way.
The League is considering eliminating fighting and cut down on roughing penalties. You can see the reasoning behind the decision. Several players have been severely injured in fights and other on-ice extra-curricular activities. But, if you talk to fans, fights are a part of the game that attracts them to the arena and stops their TV on hockey games. If you ask players, it is an important part of the game that protects prolific players and changes momentum. This move may cause popularity to decline even further.
As for hockey on television, the sport was once carried by 3 major networks is down to one game a week on NBC, regional sports networks and random games on the secondary cable network: Versus. Average attendance at the local Arena has dropped to an average just above 17,000 fans. Down from just under 22,000 prior to the lock out. Whether, it’s on TV or live, fans just aren’t getting the exposure to stay interested.
The league is scrambling to improve the game’s popularity. The NHL in conjunction with NBC has created a unique sports experience. The league and network has conjured the idea of playing a New Year’s Day game outside at major sports venues. This season’s game was at the storied Wrigley Field in Chicago. That is a clever idea. But it just hasn’t caught on. Maybe it’s because the weather in the northern regions of North America isn’t ideal for watching a sporting event. Except for maybe football, which resembles cannibalism in these parts of the country.
Other contributing factors to the decline is the value of the Canadian Dollar to the American Dollar which was a reason for Canadian teams crying for market sharing in the first place. Also, if you are close enough to the ice you hear 3 or 4 different languages being spoke, the least of which is English. Finally, where are the superstars of old like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. For the NHL to gain steam again, marketing may be a key ingredient to reaching sports fans and start making money again.
To make a long story short, Gary Bettman has a tough job. He is on a sinking ship and he is almost out of fingers to stick in the holes. Mr. Bettman is working with networks on new TV packages. He is also working with team owners to get promotions pointed in the right direction. I hope the league can be back on the right track. Hockey is uniquely North American and needs to be spread throughout the masses. Help is also needed from fans that should forgive and forget and get involved with a sport you loved so much just 15 short years ago. It has changed it’s image, but when the puck drops, it is still the same rough around the edges competitive game it has always been.