Here’s an article that I wrote for the
Chicago Sports Review for which I never received a byline:
Success is a nice thing to have. However, in order to stay successful it is best to understand just why your endeavor does as well as it does and learn to avoid the temptation to tinker with that success. After all, tinkering could lead to the same end result that killing the goose that lays the golden eggs does: disaster.
Such is the case with the National Hockey League. About a decade ago, the NHL was a tremendously successful operation with jam-packed arenas. Now, however, teams play in arenas that are often no better than half-full.
According to a recent report by a former official in the Clinton Administration, Arthur Levitt, the league had a combined loss of $272.6 million last season, with only 11 out of 30 teams making a profit. In the report, six unnamed teams lost over $20 million each with one losing nearly $41 million.
According to the report, excessive player’s salaries is the main culprit. During the 2002-2003 season, the NHL collectively had $2 billion in revenue of which 75 percent went for player’s salaries. In Levitt’s estimation, purchasing a NHL team would be a “dumb investment.”
Even before the release of the Levitt report, it was already clear that player’s salaries had reached an absurd state. The average NHL player makes $1.6 million a year, $500,000 more than the average NFL player. However, the broadcasting revenue received by the NHL and its teams is dwarfed in comparison to the NFL. In fact, at least one NHL team, the Chicago Blackhawks, has to purchase the radio time to broadcast its games.
The end result of all this is that the NHL is becoming too expensive for families and the more casual sports fan. Most non-hockey obsessed folks cannot pay the huge sums for tickets, food and alcoholic beverages that NHL teams now charge.
This loss of popularity has also spilled over to the broadcasting front, as shown by the fact that the TV ratings for regular season Arena Football League games on NBC was 17 percent higher than the rating for the NHL All-Star Game on ABC.
However, salaries are not the only reason for the NHL’s current predicament. The league has over-expanded from 21 teams in the early 1980s to 30 today. This has led to a dilution of the overall quality of talent in the NHL. Additionally, the hard-core hockey fans are also becoming disenchanted by what they perceive as a league that’s been tampering with the game that they love and ruining the experience that they’ve come to crave.
One example of this is the officiating. Originally, there was only one official on the ice during a game and these referees got so skilled that they hardly ever interfered with the play. Now, there are two referees who are randomly assigned to each game. And since they don’t work together on a regular basis, there are often communication problems between them, not to mention the fact that many of them are getting in the way of the puck-carrier.
Another example is the death of rivalries in the NHL. Up until a decade ago, there were four divisions with teams playing each other eight times a season and for the first two rounds of the playoffs. That was the recipe for heated rivalries and intense games, and it led to high fan interest and bad blood between both players and fans.
Now, with the league split into six divisions, teams in the same division only play each other at most six times a year, and with only a few exceptions, such as Chicago/Detroit, these rivalries have gone by the wayside.
Perhaps the best example is fighting. Hard-core hockey fans appreciate the fact that fighting is an integral part of the game. At the same time, casual sports fans don’t like it, which is way the NHL, in an attempt to expand the pro hockey audience, has been trying to downgrade violence.
For instance, up until the last agreement between the league and the players union, there was a 19th roster spot, which for most teams was filled by a second enforcer. With that second enforcer, who was a less-skilled player and on the bench until unleashed to wreak havoc at an appropriate time, games were often wild affairs that attracted tremendous interest from fans. Hockey games today have considerably less violence today than they did a decade ago.
All of the NHL’s non-salary woes spring from a common source. During the past decade, the league with Commissioner Gary Bettman at the helm has been endeavoring to break out of the perception that hockey is a regional sport appealing mainly to audiences in Canada and the northern United States. To that end, the league has expanded to traditionally non-hockey places such as Carolina and Florida.
Judging from the recent general manager meetings, which called for several changes in the game – and the fact that the league has proposed on cutting the roster sizes from 18 to 16, which would likely eliminate the remaining enforcer spot – it’s clear that the league is still trying to catch the attention of the casual fan at the expense of the traditional hard-core hockey fans.
That being the case, even if the league succeeds in exacting major concessions from the player’s union, pro hockey will remain in an economic morass until it recognizes its mistakes and returns to its origins.