As mentioned in the previous article in this series, once American Gary Bettman was hired as Commissioner by the NHL, his main priority was to raise the stature of hockey in the United States and get a rich American television contract. He has succeeded to a limited extent. There are now more American NHL franchises; the NHL has a better American television contract than before, though nowhere as good as the other three “big 4″ North American sports; revenues are up; more young Americans are taking up the sport of hockey than ever before.
But was this the right path for the NHL to follow, cater to the United States? The NHL Board and Bettman would probably say “yes”. But there were other choices that could have been taken.
Take for example the path to the new American television contract. Bettman’s plan was to place new American franchises in unfamiliar markets to give American television at least the illusion that hockey was “America’s game” and merited a television contract on par with the NFL, the NBA, and MLB. But that meant ignoring three key American cities, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Portland where hockey has roots and where any new NHL franchise would be a sure money maker. He also allowed two existing American franchises that had roots in hockey, Minnesota and Hartford to be shifted elsewhere.
Would it have not been better, if the NHL had claimed its secure three new markets, and straightened out Hartford and Minnesota instead? Many of the new American teams lost and some continue to lose money, something that probably would not have happened in Seattle, Portland, and Milwaukee. And more people would probably watch the NHL in these three markets and in Hartford and Minnesota on American television which would mean better ratings and possibly a better American television contract than the current one. Let the debate begin.
But that is not the only other policy. Would it not have been better to pursue a more pro-Canadian policy? Sure there has always been opposition by NHL Canadian franchise owners about sharing Canadian markets and Canadian television revenue. But should it not be Bettman’s job to reign in the Canadian owners for the good of hockey and the good of the NHL? First came the embarrassment of having to shift Atlanta back to Winnipeg. And two major Canadian markets Quebec City and Hamilton/second southern Ontario (And possibly second Montreal) still have no teams, two sure money makers whose full revenue potential are not being tapped by the NHL.
Quebec has been put into suspension because Bettman and the NHL currently cannot find a suitable owner for a franchise. Hamilton is being excluded because Bettman and the NHL Board will not force Toronto and Buffalo to set some reasonable compensation package for a new franchise in their territory like what was done in New York and Los Angeles. Two more money makers are being lost while a questionable market, Las Vegas gets a team.
And a pro-Canadian policy does not end there. NHL revenues are up but a huge percentage of the growth comes from the 7 Canadian franchises, even with a bad Canadian dollar. Putting more teams into Canada, despite the elitist and selfish opposition of the Canadian franchise owners makes sound economic sense. And it is Canadian television, not American television that is the NHL’s biggest money maker. But it is American television that is allowed to call the shots. NBC and ESPN, not TSN and CBC dictate when playoff games are played. Should it not be the person who pays for the most freight who calls the tune?
And there is a third possible policy for the NHL, an international one. Since the 1970s, the NHL has steadily become more Europeanized. The NHL has recognized the growing importance of Europe but it has hardly tapped into its full potential. And the NHL gets hurt in several ways because it will not develop its potential European markets fully.
First there is the talent problem. Neither the NHL, nor any of the “big 7″ countries have done much to turn the “big 7″ into a “big 8″ or better. There are about a dozen European countries (now joined by South Korea) stuck at the notch of play (the “B-level”) just below the “big 7″ level. Raising the quality of play in these countries would increase the stature of hockey in the world. For Bettman, who recently brought back the World Cup and probably has hopes of raising its stature, the best way is to improve the quality of play of the “B-level” countries so that the World Cup is widened, more countries care about it, and its prestige grows.
He has a second good reason for improving the quality of play in the “B-level” countries. The NHL hopes to expand to becoming a 40 team league and with each expansion, the critics claim the talent level gets watered down. That would not happen if the quality of play of even a few of these “B-level” countries was improved. There would be a huge glut of new talent to draw from.
And the NHL would sell more of its merchandise in Europe and get better European television contracts if it catered more to its European fans. If American television is reluctant to recognize the importance of the NHL, go to Europe instead. If hockey means more to Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, and Finland than it does to the United States, those are the places to go.
And if it is the ultimate goal of the NHL to set up European divisions that compete for the Stanley Cup, why delay things? Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, Prague, Helsinki, and Stockholm are just as good markets as Milwaukee, Portland, Seattle, Hamilton, and Quebec. Soccer has learned to live quite nicely without undue importance on the United States. So can the NHL.
So there was more than one policy that could have been tried when Gary Bettman became the first NHL Commissioner. Things have improved since he became the boss. But did he and the NHL choose the best policy? Let the debate begin.