After Banner NHL Season, Is Trouble on the Horizon?

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

June 7, 2012

What a difference 15 miles makes. Had the top-seeded New York Rangers beaten their cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils, in the Eastern Conference Final, the National Hockey League could have been on pace for one of its highest-rated Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory. Instead, the Devils won, and the 2012 Final, despite teams from the country’s two biggest media markets, may go down as the least-watched ever.

Just don’t let the disappointing TV numbers from the Los Angeles Kings-Devils Stanley Cup Finals detract from what’s been an otherwise banner year. NHL officials project league-wide revenue will top $3.2 billion this season, the seventh-straight year of record total revenue. The amount comes courtesy of 18% revenue growth, up 195% from the 2003-2004 campaign the year before the NHL lost a season to a work stoppage.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that attendance was up 1.8% year-over-year, with all but four teams seeing turnout increase or remain flat. Regular season TV ratings and viewership were on par with last year’s numbers. And with the Devils, down 3-0, pulling out a must-win victory in LA on Wednesday night and bringing Game Five back to New Jersey this weekend, viewership for the rest of the Finals will no doubt increase.

By most metrics, the NHL enters the offseason on a strong note, save for one small annoyance: the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Association expires September 15.

Unlike the NFL and the NBA, which began labor talks with their players unions well before the end of the season, the NHL and the NHLPA haven’t even begun substantive negotiations. Based on the recent NFL and NBA labor deals, the NHL could attempt to roll back the players’ share of revenue, which currently stands at 57%. However, since neither side knows what the other is seeking, some industry insiders suspect the league could be heading for its second lockout in seven years.

As The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell noted, the NHL knows “public sentiment is rarely in the favor of millionaire hockey players,” and the league also is "cognizant of the fact the players sacrificed a year of their careers the last time around. Will the ones who did so be willing to do the same again and lose millions in career earnings they will never, ever get back?"

There is at least one timely issue NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr agree on: concern over participation in and the far-flung location of the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Regardless, the Commissioner likely will face pressure from both players (who relish the opportunity to play for their country) and NBC (the rights holder for the NHL and the Olympics). At a recent press conference, Bettman stressed the Olympics would not be a “negotiating chip” and that it’s a “joint issue” for the NHL and NHLPA.

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