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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