Donald Fehr and the players are unhappy with their take, with the size of the pie which is the NHL's hockey-related revenue. After a period of robust growth, the curve has flattened out, with ticket prices about as high as they can go in their respective markets, and the league locked into its current TV deals.
A lot of the low-hanging fruit have been picked, that’s for sure. Revenues can rise with things like the Canadian dollar, but that’s out of the NHL’s control.
One thing they do have some control over though is the number of eyeballs during telecasts, and the demand for tickets for the show. And Gary Bettman being the Little Dummy Emperor that he is, keeps insisting that the game is fine and has never been better and will yammer your ear off about their own stats and facts that show the game has never been healthier, as Bruce Arthur disputes here.
But my own indices certainly are falling. I often read or cook dinner during games, instead of being inert on the couch, transfixed. I’ll fast-forward when I’m sleepy and just want to see how it ends, stopping for goals and fights. The playoffs are held up to be the pinnacle of competition, but really, it’s a mudwrestle, superficially exciting, but once you’ve seen a couple of minutes, it gets old. It’s not normal that every player sports cuts on his face or bruises or a black eye. It’s not an indicator of a successful league. Once the Canadiens are out, I don’t watch anymore.
Back in the day, after watching the Canadiens rooney the Whalers into submission or lalor the Nordiques along to the golf courses, which was fine and all, I used to stay up late and be amazed at the back and forth action of the Western Conference games, the Oilers vs. the Flames being the best example, but the Kings and the Jets also had exciting teams. I’d watch the games for the pure joy of it, with no real rooting interest.
And that’s the problem with hockey. It’s being run by people who love the minutia of hockey, they’re the pigs in the mire who really appreciate a good and fragrant mire, who’ll grudgingly respect another hog who really gets down and dirty. But the average fan isn’t entertained by that obscure, somewhat repellent spectacle. She’d much rather watch the cute ducks flit around on the pond all graceful and effortless.
Only when the game of hockey is rescued from the NHL, when the NHL-equivalent of the NFL’s introduction of the forward pass or the NBA’s introduction of the shot clock occurs, will the NHL start to get the numbers that reflect how great the game of hockey is, or should be.
Hockey is run by myopic purists, like the old days when football men would rhapsodize about John Hannah and the ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ approach of Woody Hayes. And that’s a bad thing. Purists insist that golf clubs should be retroactively backdesigned so that it’s harder to make par. Tennis purists hate oversize carbon fiber rackets.
Ski purists advocated against sidecut on skis, because racers used flat planks, so everybody should use flat planks. Sidecut would make the sport easier, would make carving turns a breeze, and thus were cheating. They only relented, after decades of an industry-wide self-embargo, led by a small cabal of European reactionaries, when snowboarding started eating their lunch, when beginners would strap on a board and, after a couple of days, would say “This is easy, and way more fun, I’m never skiing again.” Then, and only then, did the ‘shape-ski revolution’ begin.
So yes, all you Gary Bettman apologists, revenues are rising under his watch, but please understand that they’re rising at a slower rate than all other North American major team sports. As Donald Fehr observes:
"The NHL's revenues have fallen behind all the other sports. Basketball’s have exploded. We used to be 20% behind and now it’s 50% or more behind …"
The NHL wears the dunce cap among the NBA, the NFL and MLB.
Yet it would be so easy to fix. Let the players play, get the cheating and hooking and slashing and mugging and violence and overcoaching out of the game, and watch spectators flock in.