Dear NHL Commissioner: Get Your Priorities Straight!

David RosenblumCorrespondent IAugust 5, 2009

Photo: Bettman demonstrating the gap between the NHL and other professional sports leagues

Over the last week I have been grimacing in pain due to getting my wisdom teeth pulled.  It has given me time to sit around, watch television, and live on yogurt, soup, and pudding. 

As I’ve waited for the pain to subside I was lucky enough to observe the idiocy that is the NHL front office.  For a league that is struggling to maintain it’s place in the popular sports hierarchy, it doesn’t look like they realize that there is a huge public image problem.

This has been escalated even more by the recent news stating that the NHL is looking into contracts signed by star free agents.  Evidently, they are concerned that teams are front-loading the contracts so the player gets paid the bulk of the money in the earlier years of the deal, providing the team with less of a salary cap hit in the later years of the deal.

For example, defensemen Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers just inked a seven-year deal worth $33.5 million, $28 million of which will be paid in the first four years of the contract. 

The fishy part about the contract is that Pronger is now 34 years old and will be 35 when the season starts, so the odds of him playing until he is 42 years old are very slim—although NHL defensemen do enjoy long careers.

The problem with the entire contract situation is this: the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) was designed so that teams would have to abide by a set salary cap. 

By front-loading the money in contracts, teams look like they are trying to circumvent the cap hit that would occur should a player retire before playing out his deal, which would mean that a team signed a player and discussed his retirement—something that is forbidden.

The NHL shouldn’t be overly concerned with this issue, and that is why I’m writing a letter to Gary Bettman, the Commissioner of the NHL, telling him exactly what he should do to bring the league back to prominence:

Dear Commissioner Bettman,

Why are you concerning yourself with the ethics behind contracts being signed by your star athletes when there are more pressing matters at hand? 

Do you want to see your league take a step back to what it was like during the 2004-05 NHL Lockout?  I sure as hell don’t.  What you need to be focusing on is the promotion and image of the league.  The one good thing that you have going for you: the attendance numbers are extraordinary! 

Total attendance throughout all thirty teams totaled 21,495,541 fans, with only the Atlanta Thrashers filling less than 80% of their seats.

Both of these numbers are better than the NBA, which plays the same number of games in front of comparable crowds.  The NBA had 21,398,899 fans come to their games, but seven franchises failed to reach 80% average attendance, with the Memphis Grizzlies bringing up the rear at 70.3%.

To compare the two leagues, in Philadelphia, a strong sports market, you had the Flyers average 19,545 (100.2%) in attendance at the Wachovia Center versus the NBA’s 76ers who averaged 15,802 (79.7%) in the same arena! 

The amazing thing is, both teams made the playoffs in 2008-09, but the disparity in attendance heavily favored the NHL team.

So Gary, now that you have brought back the original fan base to the NHL, it is now time to expand the league’s horizons and grab sports fans and casual viewers alike. 

How should you do this? First, focus on obtaining media contracts!  The NHL may as well be in the Stone Age compared to the rest of the major professional sports leagues. 

While the NFL has $3+ BILLION in television contracts with CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, ESPN, and NFL Network, the NHL has a measly $70 million per year contract with Versus, along with a two year contract to broadcast about 10 games on NBC a year (including the Winter Classic through 2011).

Here is a list of things to do to promote the NHL:

1. Get a deal done with ESPN to broadcast games.

Some of my best memories from when I was younger was watching Gary Thorne do a game on ESPN, then keeping the TV on to watch NHL 2 Night.  ESPN does a great job of promoting the content shown on their station, and with the amount of viewership they get, it will be worth it, this I guarantee.

2. Recognize that you have a great thing going with the NHL Winter Classic. 

The event has rejuvenated hockey and is something that the media can jump on board with.  One idea that has been floating around is a possible match up between rivals Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the middle of the Keystone State at Beaver Stadium at Penn. State.

I suggest working as hard as you can to get the Penn. State Athletic Department to agree to let you have a Winter Classic there.  The 2009 Winter Classic was the most viewed game in 34 years.  Imagine the viewership and attendance numbers if the reigning Stanley Cup champion Penguins faced off against the division rival Flyers in a packed stadium of 107,282+ people! 

Not only are you competing with College Football Bowl Games on New Year’s Day, but you will have the biggest College Football stadium to host a game in!

3. Promote your star players more effectively. 

Other leagues do this very well through community service programs which they advertise during games on television. 

For example, the NFL is teamed up with the United Way, the MLB has the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the NBA has their own NBA Cares program.  What does the NHL have?  Show some of the league’s top stars interacting with people in their communities in a likeable and humorous way.  That should spark more interest in the teams and players around the league.

As a fan of all sports, I can probably name the top stars in each league, but none more so than the NFL.  I could probably name the starting QB, RB, and WR as well as top defensive personnel, and head coaches for each team. 

For the NHL, I could only do this with about half of the league, and I probably only know about five to ten coaches in the league.  This shows the pathetic job that you are doing in promoting your own people. 

When avid hockey fans don’t know the teams around the league then you have to work at getting more people to watch more games.  By changing up the schedule to make it easier for people to watch more games, or by broadcasting more games nationally you have a much better chance at success.

Furthermore, we all know who Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are. But instead of jamming more of them down our throats, why don’t you do something to promote the other stars in the league?

I am a Flyers season ticket holder and know of the accomplishments of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Simon Gagne, but other hockey fans might not.  Most likely, if fans can’t reach the players on a personal level, then they won’t be as likely to keep watching. 

Get the best players in the league in the spotlight and keep them there!  The NHL All Star Game was great this year at doing this, the problem is that not many people saw it.

There are a lot of problems with the NHL, but things have gotten much better since the lockout.  Attendance numbers are great, but what you need to do now is promote the league and it’s image. 

The NHL has some of the most talented athletes in the world right now and is dominated by young, exciting stars.  People should know about them! 

If you do your job and actively promote the league, no matter how much it costs the league and the owners, you will make the NHL a premier league once again.


A Hockey Fan Who Cares