Why the NHL Will Not Bounce Back If It Loses 2013 Season to Labor Dispute

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2012

Gary Bettman is digging a deep hole for the NHL.
Gary Bettman is digging a deep hole for the NHL.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The time is getting dangerously close to the point of no return for the NHL.

The league announced its latest round of cancellations. There will be no hockey before Jan. 15, at the earliest.

It seems likely that if no progress is made from this point and the two sides do not come to an agreement by mid-January, the league will then make an announcement that the 2012-13 season will be canceled in its entirety.

If that happens, it would be the second time the NHL has lost a full season of hockey. The NHL also canceled the 2004-05 season due to a dispute with the NHLPA.

The NHL is the only league to lose a complete season due to labor difficulties in North America and now it is perilously close to losing a second season.

The NHL is not going to bounce back easily if the season does get canceled. Commissioner Gary Bettman may believe that the league can rebound and win the public's trust along with that of big business, but that process will almost certainly be long and difficult.

The fans are predictably angry about the state of the NHL and the fact that the league will soon hit the fifth calendar month of the lockout.

Fans who call radio talk shows and post on the most popular websites vent their anger with both sides in the dispute. Many will be happy if and when the lockout ends.

They also may think twice before laying out their hard-earned dollars to buy season tickets in the future. It's one thing to get let down once by a lockout; a second lockout might be too much to abide.

The NHL has it tougher than the other sports. It clearly ranks fourth among the major North American professional sports leagues (source: Harris Interactive). While there has been recent growth and recognition in recent years, that process has now stopped.

Why would sponsoring businesses continue to do business with the NHL when the league has proven that it is not very dependable?

Businesses that like to spend money on sports could go to the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA and not have to worry about labor difficulties derailing their plans.

The NHL has lagged behind the other sports in television revenue. However, the NHL signed a 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC in 2011 that has helped give the league greater visibility and also improved the business prospects (source: NHL.com).

While there is a provision for giving NBC an extra year at the end of the contract if a season is lost due to the lockout, it seems that the NHL has a rather cavalier approach to its new business partner (source: CBSSports.com).

The Winter Classic has been a way for the NHL to assert itself on New Year's Day since 2008. The outdoor hockey game has regularly given the NHL its highest regular-season ratings.

The NHL took advantage of college football's decision to spread out its bowl games and create a void on New Year's Day. The Winter Classic not only captured existing hockey fans, it brought new eyes to the television screen and created a buzz for the league.

The lockout creates a new void on New Year's Day.

Why couldn't the NBA take over that day just as it does on Christmas Day with its basketball broadcasts? Perhaps college football can reclaim that day.

It may not be quite as easy for the NHL to continue building with that event.

The NHL has just a few weeks left to save the season.

If attitudes do not change quickly, the NHL will find that it is in a deep chasm and may have a very difficult time bouncing back from this debacle.