Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 4: Was Pro-American Policy The Best Choice For The NHL?

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.


Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 3: Low Status Played A Key Role In NHL Expansion/Relocation

When Gary Bettman became NHL Commissioner in 1993, one of his priorities that he was probably specifically charged with by the NHL Board was to raise the status of NHL hockey in the United States. And in tangible terms, this meant getting a much more lucrative contract from American televison, one that at least approached that of football, baseball, and basketball.

Bettman initiated a controversial policy. He would expand the NHL into unfamiliar markets in the United States where the game in many cases had to be taught to the new patrons. By expanding the NHL all over the United States, he hoped that the NHL would at least give an illusion that it was one of “America’s games”, a “big 4″ professional sport that merited an American television contract on par with the NFL, MLB, and the NBA. In addition, he sanctioned the move of 4 existing franchises from traditional hockey loving markets to new territory. These shifts were Minnesota to Dallas; Quebec to Denver; Hartford to Raleigh; and Winnipeg to Phoenix. Of the four shifts, only the move of Quebec to Denver could be said to be a move from one hockey loving market to one with any familiarity with hockey.

There have been 7 expansion teams during Bettman’s tenure; Florida, Anaheim, Nashville, Minnesota, Atlanta, Columbus, and now Las Vegas. All except Minnesota and possibly Anaheim have been non-traditional hockey markets. In the end Bettman did get a better contract from American television, but not one that compares favorably with those given to the other three leagues. And there would be low moments like the OLN/Versus episode.

Expansion to unfamiliar markets came at a price. In some years, it was reported that as many as 10 American teams were losing money. The lowest moment so far was the shifting of Atlanta for the second time to a Canadian city, this time Winnipeg. Right now Arizona is another potential major embarrassment.

There was a bitter reaction elsewhere. American cities in the northwestern United States, specifically Portland, Milwaukee, and Seattle – three sure money makers – were ignored. The shift of Winnipeg and Quebec and the NHL’s refusal to put a second team in southern Ontario, specifically Hamilton, accounts for much of Bettman’s unpopularity in Canada, even though he was probably right that the smaller Canadian cities needed bigger and better arenas with much more solid ownership.

Bettman himself is probably NOT anti-Canadian, though most Canadians believe it. He opened the door for Winnipeg and Quebec to return in 2010 and expressed regret at the loss of the franchises. And the limited number of Canadian teams probably has more to do with the existing Canadian franchise owners unwillingness to share their markets and Canadian television revenue than any “anti-Canadian” policy initiated by Bettman and the American owners of the NHL. But the “low status” problem in the United States has dictated much of his policies about where new NHL expansion teams should be located.

Would it have been better to put new teams in Milwaukee, Portland, and Seattle, cities that Canadians can hardly object to that have a love of hockey, instead of many of the unknown American markets? Certainly NHL television and attendance records might have been better, leading to a better American television contract. Some of the new American franchises have worked; Dallas, Anaheim, and Denver. Hopefully Nashville, after coming close to being shifted to Hamilton by Jim Balsille has turned the corner.

But hockey remains number 4. The NHL has made progress and revenues are up during Bettman’s time as Commissioner, but he has not solved the status problem. Right now Arizona, Carolina, and the arena of the New York Islanders are major problems. Columbus and Florida are precarious franchises. Will Las Vegas work or become another Phoenix? Can it really be said that hockey is “America’s game”?