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Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby raises the Stanley Cup after his team beat the Detroit Red Wings to win Game 7 of the tournament finals last June in Detroit. (Paul Sancya)
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby raises the Stanley Cup after his team beat the Detroit Red Wings to win Game 7 of the tournament finals last June in Detroit. (Paul Sancya)

Sports

Tale of two leagues: How the NHL succeeds despite itself Add to ...

And through it all, team values keep rising. "That's been true since the 1960s," says Mr. Moag, whose firm has studied the impact of previous recessions on the sports industry. Fans want "an entertaining distraction from the nervousness of economic doubt."

This year's sale of the Montreal Canadiens marked a milestone. The price tag, which includes the team's Bell Centre arena and a concert promotion business, was about $575-million (U.S.), by far the most ever paid for an NHL team and its assets. Subtracting the arena debt, the deal is expected to net U.S. seller George Gillett about $215-million, which translates into a 20 per cent gain on his original investment in 2001.

Elsewhere in the land where hockey is king, teams have never been more profitable, thanks in part to the stronger dollar, astute management and remarkably loyal fans willing to pay some of the NHL's highest fares.

The Vancouver Canucks have had a 98 per cent renewal rate for season tickets and still maintain a healthy waiting list. And not even years of ineptitude on the ice keep staunch fans from forking out league-high prices to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"There might be some resiliency there, because we're in a business where our customers are usually committing [dollars]up front," says Tom Anselmi, chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which raised season-ticket prices 3.5 per cent for this season. "So there's a bit of a time lag that helps us. But we're not recession-proof. We've seen some impact."

MLSE doesn't reveal its revenue projections. "Suffice to say, we're planning on being down a bit, because we see an economy out there that's still 12 to 24 months from righting itself," Mr. Anselmi says. "And when it does right itself, we're not sure what it's going to look like. We don't believe it's going to be your typical robust exit from a recession we're used to."

Meanwhile, a dozen of the NHL's 30 franchises are likely losing money on an operating basis. Neither the league nor its teams, all of which are privately held, reveal specific numbers. And results that do occasionally make it into the public realm are not necessarily reliable.

Most of the money losers are in non-traditional hockey markets, where "the NHL as a product is one of the first things that people are going to cut out of their discretionary entertainment money," says University of Alberta professor Dan Mason, an expert on stadium economics. The few that have been successful, such as the Dallas Stars, have done it with sound management and winning records. "Losing teams do not work in those markets."

Yet Dallas owner Tom Hicks may be forced to sell the team following sharp reversals in his other investments.

And the Phoenix bankruptcy shed a revealing light on just how bad things can get for an ineptly run franchise with a poor product in an unforgiving market.

The Coyotes' losses, as shown in blunt court documents, have been staggering, even as the NHL brass was assuring the world that hockey in the desert was doing just fine.

The Coyotes were bleeding tens of millions before the year-long lockout of 2004-05 that ushered in a new salary cap system that was supposed to boost the fortunes of struggling teams. By 2007, the team's operating loss totalled a whopping $107.8-million, compared with red ink of $49.4-million in 2004. The 2008 number was $54.8-million for a franchise basically run on a shoestring.

Between August, 2008, and the team's bankruptcy filing last May, the NHL itself was financing the losses by early transfers of revenue-sharing payments and eventually by direct loans.

Now that the court has rejected both Jim Balsillie's and the NHL's competing bids for the business, the NHL is still stuck with the costs until it revises the terms of its offer to unsecured creditors or finds a buyer acceptable to the court.

Hence, the logic of simply eliminating the Coyotes and any other team with little chance of ever escaping from the terminal ward.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, like his colleagues in other sports, has adamantly rejected the idea of contraction. He is still convinced his expansive strategy will one day succeed, given enough time and patience.

But the league's more successful owners must surely be running out of the latter after the embarrassing Phoenix episode and the continuing drain on their wallets.

You just won't hear it from them.

"My experience in any business is you've always got challenges out there," Mr. Anselmi of MLSE says. "You've always got a division that isn't operating as well as it should be or a product line that's not working as well. If the product is good, generally a business succeeds. Right now, our product in the NHL is great."

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