The National Hockey League is faced with the same conundrum as ever – the markets that haven’t taken to hockey won’t be rescued by the new collective agreement.
From a Canadian perspective, it’s annoying to observe the endless financial agonies of the Phoenix franchise, even as hockey-lovers in Quebec City await another chance at a team. (And Seattle is viewed as next in line, if a struggling franchise is to be moved.) And it’s doubly annoying to think that the league’s desire to create healthier terms on which essentially unhealthy franchises could compete contributed to this season’s lockout.
A small number of wealthy Canadian and U.S franchises will continue to prop up the league’s failed southern expansion strategy for some time yet. The league’s $200-million revenue-sharing agreement provides that franchises contribute according to their means. Phoenix, because it is owned by the league, is exempt from having to show improvements in its fan support each year. And large-market franchises such as the Anaheim Ducks and New York Islanders will now be eligible for support.
The league wants to be able to tell national U.S. broadcasters that it is in the biggest dozen TV markets. The most successful sports leagues are driven by television revenue, rather than by ticket sales.
Canadians who balk at the southward flow of money, especially from Toronto (nearly $20-million last season), Montreal and Vancouver, should remember that the NHL subsidized faltering Canadian franchises when this country’s dollar was at roughly 60 cents (U.S.), not long ago. Canada’s seven franchises now earn about 30 per cent of revenues in the 30-team league, but it was not always thus.
The league’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, won’t let go of his southern dream, and Canadian fans are subsidizing it. Their attachment to their franchises is almost ludicrously powerful. An estimated 200 fans out of 100,000 cancelled their season tickets because of the four-month lockout.
Will their passionate attachment to hockey bring another franchise north? Not in the near future. Canadian fans remain the captive audience, outsiders at their own party.