Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Bursting the NHL Bubble

Congratulations to the 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, winner of last night's Game 7 against the Calgary Flames. This was only the second game I watched this series, and, to be honest, it wasn't exactly the most entertaining spectacle until the last 10 minutes. I don't think I've ever seen a team win with only 15 shots on goal, let alone in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Calgary for their part only mustered 17 shots, half in the last 10 minutes.

There was a time in my life when I lived to watch the Stanley Cup finals, unfortunately that time seems to have passed. No disrespect to Tampa Bay and Calgary, but I found myself rather less than enthused by this matchup. Sadly for the NHL, the vast majority of the US agreed with me. ABC's ratings for its first three games of this series were down 20% compared to last year, before a slight uptick for game six. Frankly, I watched tonight's game more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. That, and the near certainly that this was the last NHL game for a long time.

The simple truth is that the NHL is a shadow of what it used to be. In Gary Bettman's quest to make the league a "major sport" in the US, the NHL has been drained of everything that made it unique and entertaining. In the last decade, the league has become a soulless, corporate, NBA on skates. There are too many games, too many players, and too many teams. The average NHL game has become a matchup of two generic, mediocre teams trapping each other to death. The tradition and rivalries that made the NHL what it was have all but disappeared. The Detroit Red Wings-Toronto Maple Leafs rivalry, which was one of the best in North American sport, has essentially been scheduled out of existence. Instead, the Red Wings play a seemingly endless stream of games against such nondescript opposition as the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets.

The NHL's financial situation is even more dire. As the Washington Post noted back in January:

According to the league's figures, NHL teams could lose an estimated $300 million this season. Twenty clubs are losing money, according to the latest Forbes magazine analysis. Two teams filed for bankruptcy last season before new owners were found, and at least one franchise, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, has been for sale for years without finding a buyer even though the team came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup last spring.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says the sport's business model is broken, and he has staked the health of the league on achieving a labor agreement that he believes will be an economic cure-all by capping player salaries. Salaries have tripled from an average of $558,000 in 1993-94 to $1.79 million last season, overwhelming the growth in league revenues, which will reach about $2 billion this season.

If there is a prolonged lockout this fall, as looks almost certain, it is estimated that 6-8 teams might not survive. Frankly, I think that would be for the best. The NHL is the sporting equivalent of a 90's dot.com startup. The bubble is just waiting to be burst. The sooner it happens, the better off for the league and the game.


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