Sign in / Join

The NHL's Cap-Envy

For the two hundred people outside of Toronto and Detroit who care, I thought I would add my two cents to the blogging about the NHL lockout. The NHL owners envy the NFL-style hard salary cap and the “cost certainty” it promises. They salivate over it like my dog does for popcorn. The throw around the phrase “cost certainty” the way teenagers use “its like.” The personal animosity between Bettman and Goodenow along with all the other noise surrounding the talks strikes me as irrelevant. My guess is that the owners squeeze out a salary cap bargain, or else, attempt to get an “impasse” in bargaining declared and start over without the union’s participation.

Whether that kind of brinksmanship works, the owners envy the wrong thing. The engine pulling the NFL money train is not “cost certainty” but the attributes of its product. People like and understand football. Since the late 1950s, the complimentarity between TV and the NFL has only grown stronger with time. The once-a-week, weekend-based schedule fits Americans’ schedules.

The NHL product suffers by comparison. Only a small population understands and follows it. Hockey -- especially the small-rink, clutch-and-hold, two-line offside pass, dump-and-chase North American variant -- does not mesh well with TV. Some of those points were also true of NASCAR in the 1980s, but unlike NASCAR and the NFL, the NHL teams play events practically every other night. Also, the NHL, unlike NASCAR, appears unwilling to make or even experiment with significant changes that make the product more appealing to a wider audience, that is, if you don’t count the TV-enhanced puck.

On the other hand, the NHL has not consolidated their strengths – solid live attendance in the traditional hockey centers and a few other locations. Instead, they expanded willy-nilly, sucking franchise fees up left and right, now to complain about financial losses in those cities. They also seem to desire a bigger TV contract, for obvious reasons, but without joint efforts to make TV-oriented changes. Ironically, their inflexible stance on the hard cap and lost season may be a backdoor way of moving the league back toward a more consolidated, live-gate oriented approach. Only time will tell.