Sports

NHL locked out for the fourth time in its history

For the second time in eight seasons, National Hockey League (NHL) owners have locked out their players. This is now the fourth time the league has locked out its players in its history. With all of the September preseason games canceled and with the players and owners refusing to negotiate, the possibility of a quick resolution seems bleak. What the NHL owners fail to realize, however, is that whatever money they gain through the negotiations will be lost to massive public backlash.

Unlike the other major American sports leagues, the NHL has significant overseas competition. The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) out of Eurasia is the NHL’s largest competitor for top talent. As more elite hockey talent is developed in Eastern Europe, the decision to move to the U.S. and embrace a new culture is not as easy as it was when Washington Capitals left winger Alexander Ovechkin came over in 2005.

While the NHL may have been set up for a talent war with the KHL in the coming years, it certainly isn’t doing itself any favors with the lockout. Many players, including Ovechkin, have already signed contracts with teams in the KHL to play for the upcoming season. This exodus both strengthens the NHL’s competition and eliminates the owners’ strongest bargaining chip.

The recent lockouts in the NBA and NFL met somewhat timely conclusions because players were pining for their pay checks and didn’t have anywhere else to turn. Football is played at a high level only in the U.S. and, while basketball has expanded its global presence, the rest of the world pales in comparison to the NBA.

The NHL is on thin ice in terms of fan support. After the 2004–05 lockout, the league faced an uphill battle in trying to regain public support. While it has since rebuilt its fan base in the traditional hockey regions, the NHL has lost the battle to expand the sport into nontraditional regions in the Sun Belt.

Most of the problems that caused this lockout are a result of the failing Sun Belt franchises. These franchises failed to attract the fair-weather fans, and any foothold gained by the teams was wiped out by the previous lockout.

The NHL is losing its battle against other major league sports. This has created a downward spiral: Teams cannot fill arenas, and therefore cannot create enough revenue to afford a competitive roster. These losing teams drive away fans, leaving arenas barren.

In order for the NHL to regain its status as one of America’s top sports organizations, it may be necessary to contract the league back to its roots in Canada and the northern U.S.

Hockey also suffers from high start-up costs in order for youth to play. Ice hockey is just as hard, since it requires ice — which is not widely available in most of the U.S. — and skates, which are expensive. Compare this to a game of basketball, which only requires a ball and a hoop.

This current lockout is just another example of how out of touch the league’s owners are from both current and future fans. The 2004–05 lockout nearly killed the league and yet, eight years later, we are in the same situation. Hockey players are already paid the least compared to players in other big sports leagues, yet owners are still unhappy enough about money to disrupt their revenue stream.

Unless the league sees the light and begins to understand its current place on the edge of American sports, the NHL may not be able to exist much longer in its current state. If this lockout eliminates a full season like it did eight years ago, I’m not confident the league will be able to come back.