Once upon a time, there was little doubt that, along the NFL, MLB and our beloved NBA, the NHL was one of four major North American sports. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were the kind of superstars that transcended the sport and put a face on hockey. But since the 2004-05 owner lockout, many argued that hockey dropped off that pedestal. Blowing out a whole season crippled the sport, drove casual fans away in droves, and pushed the NHL off major television outlets to a fledgling “Vs.” network.
It’s taken six long years for the sport to sort of get back to where it was. Not until last season did the NHL playoff ratings get back to pre-lockout levels . NBC just paid $2 billion for 10 years of broadcasting rights. And this year, have a huge market like Boston in the Finals helped fuel some more positive ratings for the NHL.
But hockey is still getting destroyed by the NBA ratings-wise. It’s still the fourth of four major sports and it’s still fighting to make up the ground lost by the season-erasing lockout that implemented a hard salary cap. Still, the six NBA owners who also own (or owned in 2004) NHL teams are telling the rest of their ownership crew that losing a season was worth it.
How strong a group those six really are and how much they can sway opinions is in doubt. Three of the other five NHL/NBA combo owners are trying or have sold their NBA teams: Ed Snider (76ers and Flyers), Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (Maple Leafs and Raptors) and the Atlanta Spirit (Hawks and recently sold Thrashers, now moving to Winnipeg). Those three do not carry a lot of weight in NBA owner circles.
Another is James Dolan, who runs the Rangers and Knicks — he is a big market owner with money to burn who is more likely to cut a deal then spend a year locked out. Then there is Stan Kroenke, who owns the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets, and whose son Josh runs the basketball team. Leonsis is the sixth.
Regardless of how much cache’ these owners really have, the fact remains that 20% of the ownership group holds a belief that blowing out a season is worth it. And the thing is… they’re right. It was worth it. At least it was to them. A 2007 story showed that just two years after the lockout, NHL teams turned losses into very noticeable gains.
Forbes said that in the two years since the salary cap was imposed, after the season-long standoff between players and owners, “the 30 NHL franchises have increased an average of 23 per cent in value and the league has gone from an operating loss of $96 million (US) to a profit of $96 million.
“The average hockey team is now worth $200 million and last season posted a profit (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) of $3.2 million on revenue of $81 million.”
So the bottom line, as is always the case in situations like this, is that both sides (and owners in particular to maintain the focus of this story) are only concerned with the bottom line. And as we enter into what are expected to be protracted, ugly negotiations, the specter of the NHL lockout suddenly looms over talks.
With a set of owners who saw profitability after losing a season, you have at the very least a little birdie chirping on the shoulders of the unsure. Even if these owners are not obviously influential themselves, they can influence those on the fence. They’ve seen bottom lines helped by losing a season, and those owners who may need a little nudge one way or another could get that nudge from the “NHL Six.” At a time where fans are left to watch the public haggling, anything that indicates this going on longer rather than shorter is a big disconcerting.