WHEELER: The NHL Has a Problem That Only ESPN Can Fix

Kevin Wheeler, KMOX Host

The NHL All-Star game was a celebration of offense with Team Lidstrom beating Team Staal 11-10 Sunday evening in Raleigh, NC and all I could think about while watching the game was all the ownership problems the league is dealing with.

Locally, we all know that Dave Checketts and SCP Worldwide are working to solidify new financial backing after TowerBrook Capital Partners decided to pull its 75% stake in the team back in May of 2010. That stake is reportedly worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million, hence the difficulty in lining up new money to replace the old.

Checketts has always been an adept deal-maker so his track record indicates that he will eventually get something done that will allow his group to continue to manage the franchise.

The Blues’ story isn’t an alarming one when considered all by itself but when it is considered alongside the other NHL teams facing difficulty it is clear that the league is in big trouble.

The Carolina Hurricanes, hosts of this year’s All-Star game, are seeking new minority ownership.

The Atlanta Thrashers owners are suing their own lawyers, arguing that the attorneys drew up a bad contract that has made it impossible to sell the team (even though the keep saying they don’t want to sell the team). Weird. This comes on the heels of another lawsuit, recently settled, that saw one member of the ownership group suing the others. They’re also looking for a new investor.

The Buffalo Sabres are about to be sold for $150 million and that’s $10 million less than the team is asking for the Phoenix Coyotes. How is that going to work out? The Sabres are 11th in the NHL in attendance and have a large, loyal fan base that has been in place for decades. The Coyotes are 29th in attendance and they receive little fan support yet the league refuses to allow the team to be moved to a hockey-hungry market in Canada.

The Dallas Stars are for sale and even though they’re the 3rd best team in the Western Conference they rank 23rd in the league in attendance, averaging less than 15,000 fans per game.

The New York Islanders, once a proud franchise, are drawing 9,586 fans per game in the biggest metropolis in the United States.

There have also been reports that the Columbus Blue Jackets are for sale. Their season-ticket base is reportedly down more than 2,000 fans this year.

In Edmonton there are significant concerns surrounding their owner’s desire for a new arena with many fans worrying that he may attempt to move the team to Quebec if he can’t strong arm Oilers fans into helping him pay for a new one.

In Nashville you’re looking at a situation where the former CEO of the team had to step down in the midst of a financial probe that is digging into his books. There are also reports that the Preds are seeking new investors.

That’s 9 teams, almost a third of the league, embroiled in some kind of financial mess.

These problems are obviously widespread and this is just five years after a new Collective Bargaining Agreement – and salary cap – were implemented to help level the playing field. Despite that attempt, Forbes.com found that during the 2009-2010 season 16 teams lost money while only 7 teams turned a profit.

That is despite the league’s assertion that they set a new revenue record of $2.9 billion last season. According to Forbes.com, most of that revenue was generated but the top 6-7 franchises in the league.

Nice work fellas.

Here is the 2-part solution:

1) Crawl back to ESPN on your hands and knees, offer to work out a revenue sharing deal that will get your games on ANY of their channels (even if it has to be “The Ocho”) on multiple nights during the week and then pray they’re willing to consider your plea.

Getting more games on national television in the States is huge, no doubt, but even more important is getting the powerful ESPN hype machine back on your side. Their ability to cross-promote, double-promote and triple-dog-promote is absolutely key to the NHL’s future.

The league needs an infusion of cash, no doubt, but what they need more is to be relevant in the American sports scene. If ESPN mostly ignores you so will a lot of casual sports fans.

Versus has been very helpful and it would be wise to keep them on board in some capacity but if they are your only weekday hockey outlet in the United States you’re just not going to generate enough buzz to gain any momentum moving forward.

The NBC games are great too, especially the Winter Classic, but one day a week with a national audience clearly isn’t enough.

Without a more significant television deal in the U.S. the NHL will continue to flounder financially and teams will have to continue to shuffle their financial decks to help keep themselves afloat.

2) Get out of the struggling “Sunbelt” locales and move some more teams back to Canada. You know, take the game to where the fans are.

Winnipeg is dying for a new team. So is Quebec City. Heck, Ontario can easily support another franchise as well with Hamilton jockeying for position.

I understand why Bettman wants more U.S. markets than Canadian markets. He’s trying to get better TV deals here in the States and he’s already got those legions of fans in Canada hooked as it is.

The logic makes sense on some levels but ultimately it is flawed unless Bettman can land a mammoth television contract that will give teams not located in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Detroit, Boston and Chicago a chance to either break even or turn a profit.

He has a chance to pull off something sweet this offseason so the period immediately following the Stanley Cup Finals will be a crucial one of the short-term health of the league.

The sad thing is, I don’t think Bettman can pull it off. He’s proven, at least to me, that he doesn’t get what hockey fans really want. Bettman doesn’t have the game in his blood and he doesn’t realize that he is overplaying his hand with his attempt to broaden the appeal of the sport in U.S. markets that just don’t have a passion for the game.

I hope I’m wrong about all that because I’m a lifelong hockey fan who hates to see the league in such a comically tragic state. I’m pulling for Bettman, despite my dislike for his policies, even though I think he’ll get taken for a ride at the negotiating table.

Maybe it would be smarter for the league to follow the strategy that politicians do during election season: play to your base.

Give the hardcore hockey fans what they want. Put more teams in the NHL’s “Homeland” of Canada, return the game to what it was in the “good old days” of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and then regroup after a decade or so. Maybe then you can make another attempt to push your way into the homes of U.S. households.

The thing is, that will only work if you have your own house in order.

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  • Joe

    This take is very fact-challenged.
    Ratings were lower on ESPN for the NHL than they’ve been on Versus. NHL was on ESPN for many years, with some of the biggest stars in league history still around, and their ratings were awful. And they were never higher than fifth story of the night on Sports Center. Anybody really think that would change if they got it back? I don’t.
    ESPN does not pull the ratings people think, and they’re not the solution to the NHL’s problems. NHL will be better served going to NBC/Comcast’s new platform.

  • kmoxwheeler

    Hey Joe…thanks for the comment.

    The thing is, I never mentioned ratings because ratings are not the issue. It’s about exposure and cross-promotion. Nobody is better at those two things than the folks in Bristol.

    I’m saying the NHL needs Versus, NBC AND ESPN all together. If going to ESPN means ABC instead of NBC that’s fine too.

    Casual sports fans go to ESPN (and all of its affiliates) by habit. Those are the poeple the league needs to grow because the “hockey fans” out there are already tuning in. It’s the casual fans that separate hockey from the other major team sports in the US.


  • Kevin

    I agree 100% with the first part of your solution. ESPN is the key to the NHL blowing up in America. Hockey is lucky to get 2 minutes of attention in any given program right now on ESPN. Sports fans don’t tune in to Versus to see what’s going on, they tune in to ESPN. Period.

    I don’t agree with moving struggling teams to Canada. I think that would only abandon potential American fans and serve as another example for those who say hockey will never fit in the US. If you look a little bit closer, you can see that southern markets are not necessarily to blame for lack of interest, but it is the success of those teams holding back any growth of the fan base. Look at the franchises struggling to fill seats: Phoenix, Atlanta, Columbus, and Nashville have never won a playoff series. The Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 and the Panthers haven’t won a series since 1996. Comparing this to crowds in Dallas, San Jose, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Carolina says a lot about why certain teams are struggling to attract attention.

    Winning playoff games creates history, fond memories, and tradition, which is why people become fans in the first place. That is what “weak” markets need.

    • Craig

      Carolina has won a Cup and been to another final yet their owner is looking for investors. Winnipeg, Quebec City and Southern Ontario can easily support teams.
      As it stands now the Canadian teams and their fans are propping up the weak U.S. teams.

      • Kevin

        Just because ownership is looking for investors doesn’t mean the team isn’t supported by fans. Besides, is that your whole argument? Pretty weak…

      • Norm

        The reason Karmanos is they’re looking for a new investor for the Canes is because his original partner in buying the team died 2 years ago and they’re looking to clear up the estate. He is also committed to finding significant local ownership which will only help the franchise’s long-term status in the area.

    • Mark

      Just to clarify, since “facts” are being argued here. The Predators are not struggling to fill seats. They’re averaging 15,921 per game, which is UP about 1,000 from last season and that’s at about 93% capacity. They’ve also already more sellouts this season than all of last season. And, that’s with playing the fewest home games so far of ANY NHL team.

  • Joe

    We’ll agree to disagree. eSPN did plenty of cross promotion before with the NHL and the ratings were still pitiful. Americans don’t watch hockey in droves , period. Part of the problem is that local sportscasters like yourself don’t devote any attention to the sport. It’s all about Kobe and LeBron and Favre. That’s ok. We don’t watch local sports anymore anyway. Hockey fans are just fine the way things are. We don’t care if it’s not on ESPN. We like the sport the way it is. If the rest of America doesn’t care? Fine.

  • Chris

    Couldn’t agree more with the point about ESPN, I have long felt the same way. When the NHL was on ESPN, it was a relevant part of SportsCenter, today it is not. While better ratings on ESPN would be great, the exposure ESPN can offer would be incredibly valuable to this league.
    I agree that avid hockey fans tend to feel things are fine the way they are, but if the NHL doesn’t get some help in the future, we should start worrying that things aren’t going to be like they are for much longer and hockey will get even less coverage than it does today. The more people that are interested in hockey, the more coverage it will get.

  • Kevin

    This is a joke. “Crawl back to ESPN”

    ESPN/ABC has already stated that they want the NHL back and are willing to pay big bucks to get it. Also they are willing to enter a bidding war with the new Comcast/MBC merger.

    The NHL is growing while a sport like the MLB(sucks) while still bigger then the NHL is in decline(severe of late).

    It is unlikely that the NHL will switch back to ESPN and it’s simple. The new Comcast/NBC merger group has stated that they want to build a new sports group that will “challenge” ESPN. And there plan is to build around the NHL. More games on NBC, Versus will be re-branded(again) and will also reach a lot more households then the current 74 million they are in now. With NBC/Comcast willing to shell out big bucks for the NHL.

    Also Versus/Comcast gave the NHL respect and offered them a large money deal right after the lockout which ESPN didn’t. Even though ESPN is willing to spend big money on the NHL right now, it is likely that the NHL will stick with NBC/Comcast unless ESPN offers a crazy amount of money(which is possible)…

    We will find out soon however since the NHL’s TV rights deal is up at the end of this season. The new NBC/Comcast merger and the NHL will work out a deal to keep the NHL on Versus(new name) and NBC together instead of separately like it was before. Now that Versus/NBC/Comcast is all one company, they can work out a TV deal together which makes it even more likely that the NHL sticks with them. Gary Bettman has already stated that they will start negotiating a deal to stay with Comcast/NBC this week.

    But your claim that the “NHL should go crawling back to ESPN” is ridiculous considering it is ESPN that is begging to get the NHL back. Also keep in mind that the NFL and NBA are heading for almost certain lockouts next season which makes the NHL even more valuable to ESPN.

  • Matt L

    I came across this article while looking at some hockey info and I agree 100% the NHL needs ESPN. For much as ppl complain about Versus, their presentation is pretty decent. This however, becomes absolute when tons of ppl dont get it. I go to college an hour outside of Pittsburgh and dont even get Versus at my school which means I cant watch some of their games. How is a causal suppose to get into it when some of the hard core fans cant even watch the games, it makes no sense. Switch to ESPN, bring some of the key ppl from Versus over and let the rest work itself out.

  • Joe

    It’s a joke to think that the NHL would be so much “better” by being on ESPN. The league’s darkest days were when they were on the four-letter. ESPN is all about Kobe and LeBron and whatever dumb, hyped up NFL controversy of the week is for their moronic talking heads.

  • granger

    .NBA has just as many, if not more, struggling franchises. If ESPN were the panacea…At least half of the arenas on NBA highlights have significant empty seats. Moreover, as we move into the teens and 2020’s, with economy issues and more of a move to individual and mobile delivery, I just don’t see national TV deals as being such a dominant indicator anymore. Important of course, but I don’t think the difference between an ESPN and a Versus is going to determine a particular franchise’s health. This isn’t the NFL. It’s going to have much more to do with grassroots marketing by the league and the individual team’s efforts. I mean at this point there’s probably only 3 cities left in the US that the NHL could go to that they haven’t been, and that’s debatable. Even with a TV deal on ESPN, I’m not sure that even with good records the likes of Nashville and Columbus would get significant play.

  • wdj

    I’m a supporter of VS.

    Hockey was always the stepchild on ESPN because they give so much of their time & attention to football, basketball or whatever topic is trendy. On VS., hockey is their #1 product, so it’s prominently featured.

    Consider this – If hockey went back to ESPN, do you really think that they would show the All-Star fantasy draft like VS. did? Would ESPN show the Entry Draft like VS has? Would ESPN show 2-3 playoff games per night for the entire two weeks of the first round like VS. has? Absolutely not.

    Additionally, in my opinion, ESPN is low quality sports journalism. They are often more interested in generating controversy and creating stories than they are in reporting facts and/or sharing well thought out opinions grounded in facts.

    Finally, I don’t think that ESPN wants hockey back so that they can grow it. I think they just want to eliminate any competition.

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  • Ben

    ESPN dominates the sport universe.They televise 65 sports in 15 languages, to more than 200 countries. When you think of the current sport headlines, how does one usually retrieve that information? You saw it on ESPN. It’s on everywhere – the gym, restaurants, Best Buy, even on the jumbo tron in downtown Cincinnati. While the revenue for the league may be lackluster during the first couple years back, NHL on ESPN would be great for the promotion and the future of hockey.

    No doubt there’s any comparison in the amount of hockey fans to the other major sports. I agree with the NHL being the ‘stepchild’ the ESPN. It never got the coverage the NBA and the MLB did. But you give younger kids the ability to watch the league growing up and that fan base will most definitely grow. Versus is a great network. I love how the NHL is its main focus. But how many people get that channel? On Dish Network, to get Versus, you have to sell yourself on the weekends to pay the monthly amount.

    NHL on ESPN will allow for thousands more to watch and understand the game. The NHL needs ESPN, and wouldn’t it be awesome for it to be covered by several?

  • Don

    You hit the nail on the head, hockey headlines in only seven cities. The NHL needs to lower its salary caps to profit in the other twenty three cities. Both Winnipeg and Quebec don’t have major league venues, until they do moving north isn’t the answer. If hockey only draws 12k in these large southern markets, the salary cap should reflect drawing 12k, not 18k up north. Hockey will never grow in non traditional hockey markets without a NHL club. And if you aren’t in the South, forget about a national TV contract or TV ratings…

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