Why the NHL Is One More Lockout Away from Irrelevancy

Andrew MontagContributor IISeptember 24, 2012

Evgeni Malkin is one of many NHL players playing overseas while the lockout is resolved
Evgeni Malkin is one of many NHL players playing overseas while the lockout is resolvedJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

During the last NHL lockout during the 2004-2005 NHL season, the National Hockey League virtually fell off the map. Disinterest was at an all-time high, and viewership couldn't have been lower. However, since then, the NHL has taken considerable strides in garnering the interest of a wider fan base, and making the NHL a prominent television league.

By partnering with the NHL for a record setting $2 billion television deal, NBC has gambled that the NHL will be prominent and relevant for the next 10 years. This seemed to be a sure bet with viewership hitting all time highs this year, according to a USA Today study. Additionally, non-traditional hockey markets like Los Angeles and Phoenix made a push to stay relevant in a very demographically controlled league. Los Angeles did so by winning the Stanley Cup. Phoenix, although controlled by the NHL and almost destined for relocation, still generated interest during their historic Stanley Cup run. 

NBC set record numbers in terms of viewership during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and many expected this trend to continue. However, NBC and American hockey fans have encountered the inevitable conflict between the NHL players association and the league resulting in the most recent lockout of the NHL players.

To make matters worse and create more of a media frenzy, big-name players such as Evgeni Malkin, Joe Thornton and Rick Nash have all signed deals to play overseas (Hockey Buzz). Although their contracts allow them to return to the states pending a resolution in the conflict, this is a bad look for the league, and creates a very bleak outlook amongst fans—who still cling to the hope for a hockey season this year.

Financially, the league can afford a lockout. Aside from high net-worth markets like New York, Toronto, Chicago and the remaining original six teams, most hockey franchises don’t turn profit until the playoff stretch begins. This makes the threat of an early season lockout seem not so consequential for many franchises. It’s common that viewership increases as a playoff race tightens up, so a lockout isn’t a primary concern of franchises like Florida, Phoenix and other non-traditional hockey markets.

Ideally, this conflict is resolved sooner rather than later. But if this lockout threatens the 2012-2013 season, the NHL could return to its seemingly irrelevant stage following the 2004-2005 lockout—and this is something the NHL, players and fans cannot afford.