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Pressure Mounts for NHL Return Plan

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COVID-19 is once again raging across the United States. Over 1 million cases have been reported since the start of November. Despite that, the NFL and CFB are playing. The NBA wants to and soon. What’s happening with the NHL return?

According to a report from ESPN, the NBPA has approved the December 22 return to play for the 2020-21 season. The expectation is that the season would include 72 games instead of the usual 82, with training camps to start December 1. The financial details remain to be ironed out including an amended CBA for the season, but it looks like a go.

The pressure is mounting on the NHL to do the same.

Overlook

To this point, the NHL has been setting optimistic dates for a return and has moved them back. January 1 was the most recent date set but in recent discussions February 1 has been floated more and more often. Even Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley believes February 1 is a more likely target date. His reasons include needing fans in the building and giving more time to potential COVID-19 mitigation including any potential vaccines.

That said, the NHL reiterated (perhaps because of the NBA timeline) it wishes to resume January 1.

Today, Commissioner Gary Bettman came out with some potential NHL return to play plans including short-term hubs, a temporary realignment and a shorter schedule.

Bettman’s remarks came at the Paley International Summit during a virtual panel discussion. He made it clear there would be no full-season bubble requirement, but offered some modified versions. Bettman spoke of potential hubs, or a hybrid system, with teams gathering for 10-12 days to play games with no travel, then returning home to families for a week. He also mentioned the league is looking at playing with and without fans in attendance, something Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is against. He said it would be difficult for teams “including us” to make it financially without fans. It’s unclear how the NHL would convince owners to operate their franchises if they’re hemorrhaging money.

Travel

Another major issue is the Canadian border with the US is closed until at least January 1, which has led to rampant speculation about an all-Canadian division to at least start the season. This would also require the realignment of the remaining teams into different divisions. It’s unclear if this would last until the border opens for for the duration of a shortened season.

But now another travel issue is cropping up as COVID-19 rages across the US once again: certain states are not allowing citizens of other states to travel in, while others are requiring quarantines of up to two weeks. This lends credence to Bettman’s hub city approach in places where travel is either unrestricted or simply requires a negative test before entering. Either way, it’s an extra hoop to jump through in what already resembles a circus balancing act.

Tokyo Olympics Impact

The NHL really does have an end date for this season: the Tokyo Olympics. American broadcast rightsholder NBC Sports also hold the rights to the Tokyo games and would not pre-empt its coverage for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So the Cup has to be handed out prior to mid-July or risk being awarded in a vacuum.

Even the NBA acknowledged it needed to wrap up before opening ceremonies.

Truth be told, I’m sure everyone from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to Joe and Jane Golden Knights Fan would love to get the season started ASAP. But it has to be done with safety as the top priority. After that, profitability needs to be there too. That’s where it gets sticky for owners.

Whether the league plays 82 or 48 games this season, owners do not have a provision to pro-rate player salaries for this year. That means exactly what you think it does. Regardless of games played, each player would get his full salary for the season. So owners are rightly concerned about having fans in the building to help cover expenses, and why a few owners might have even quietly suggested not playing this year if there’s no fans.

The NBA expects that a restart on Dec. 22 that includes Christmas Day games in its 72-game schedule would be worth $500M to $1B in short and long-term revenues for the league and players. The league also expects to wrap its schedule up prior to the mid-July start of the Tokyo games.

The Real Question

The real question is one of economics. If you play, you pay full boat players salaries. You bear the cost of travel, all staff, and keeping the lights on. Does the broadcast revenue and ancillary sales (merch, etc.) come close to making you whole? Or at least outstrip the losses sustained from missing a year?

The hardest impact to measure would be missing the season and the effect on future income. Except the NHL has a real-world example in the 2004-05 season, lost to a cancellation amid labor negotiations. I realize a lot has changed in 15 years, but the sting is still felt by many on all sides. The players balked at accepting a deal they could have had a year earlier resulting in the current salary cap. Ownership hated missing a year’s worth of gate and other revenue, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told them to stand together and they did. But millions of dollars was lost in revenue and some fans checked out in disgust.

As I mentioned earlier, VGK owner Bill Foley has voiced – publicly – his financial concerns with no fans in the stands. If Foley, whose franchise is doing well at the gate, in merch and on the ice is concerned, can you imagine the pucker factor in cities where the playoffs and full houses are but wishful thinking? Foley is not alone on this. Not by a long shot.

Is There An Answer?

This is where transparency for an NHL return is important. How do you plan to go about making sure teams don’t fold or go up for sale because of financial duress caused by the pandemic? While those reasons are understandable, they are also something the league needs to be proactive about avoiding. What are the plans? How can you reassure fans of **insert team here** that it’s going to be ok? Information abhors a vacuum. The less said, the more rumors will swirl. The answer is for the NHL to step up and at least unveil some of its planning. I’m not asking for specific, team-by-team financial details. I do want a clear vision of leadership as to where the league is headed.

Will the NHL return on January 1? It’s not out of the question, but for that to happen a lot of things need to be resolved – and explained – before then.

 

 

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[…] pressure mounting on the NHL to announce plans for its return, the league and NHLPA have expanded the return to play committee […]

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