Will Europe Eventually Become the NHL's Piper?

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Will Europe Eventually Become the NHL's Piper?
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This is an article about the long term, probably very long term, of possibly the NHL's future.

It is written after I thought about the possible implications that might result when I reported in my previous article about the NHL's new Scandinavian television contract.

It is certainly an impressive contract for both parties.  Some of my responders have complained that the cost is too much, which is good from the NHL's revenue perspective.

But the television package is a complete one, allowing Scandinavian fans to get every game for both the regular season and the playoffs.

That is as good a coverage as you get in Canada, and much better than the limited exposure that the NHL gets in the United States.

The current NHL American television contract is much better than its old one, but particularly on cable television, the NHL is limited to the small Versus market instead of the large ESPN one.

While the NHL considers itself an American "big four" sport, its American television contract clearly ranks the NHL at a lowly number four compared to its three rival leagues.

Becoming an American "big four" sport has obsessed the NHL from at least the time of the first expansion back in 1967.

As early as then, the NHL expanded into six American cities, while the best Canadian market, Vancouver, was shunned for three years, eliciting howls of outrage in Canada and even questions in the Canadian Parliament.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

 

That hunt for the dreamy American television contract for the NHL intensified in the 1990s. 

It led to the choice of Gary Bettman as Commissioner with a clear mandate to get a rich American television contract.

The NHL immediately accepted Bettman's long-term strategy of placing new franchises in American markets unfamiliar with hockey in order for it to appear as an American national sport.

So Canadian and even northern American franchises like Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg were moved south and other lucrative northern markets like Hamilton, Milwaukee, Seattle, and Portland were ignored in favor of such hockey hotbeds like Phoenix, Columbus,  Atlanta and Miami when the league expanded.

The result has been a string of money-losing franchises and only a marginally better American television contract.

The NHL has continued on this policy until hard economic reality hit them in the face.

The first crack in the armor has been the shift of the potentially lucrative, large Atlanta market to small market and arena Winnipeg, with more potential shifts (certainly Phoenix at one point) on the way.

But the recent Scandinavian television contract might eventually point the NHL in a new direction.

Elsa/Getty Images

While Bettman has been as pro-American as his Board of Governors have wanted him to be, he is no fool as far as money is concerned.

 

In 2010, he made a grand tour of the cities whose franchises he moved in the 1990s and told the mayors and potential owners that the price of readmission is good ownership and an NHL approved arena.

So Winnipeg has its team back, Quebec is virtually committed to building a new one, Howard Baldwin is trying to stir up interest in Hartford, there has been talks with Seattle, and there has been a reconciliation with Jim Balsillie for a possible future new southern Ontario team.

Similarly, Bettman might decide to change direction as far as television money is concerned.

Unable to make hockey a "Big Four" American sport in terms of interest and television revenue, he might persuade his masters to look to Europe instead.

Bettman has been shrewd enough to recognize and nurture European interest.

With the increasing numbers of Europeans in the NHL and the increase in interest in the league from the Scandinavian countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, and a bit from Switzerland and Germany, he has consistently had the NHL play exhibition games there and even had two or four teams open their regular seasons across the Atlantic.

The Scandinavian television contract is the first significant NHL media deal outside of North America.

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

It doesn't compare with the potential deal of a single lucrative American contract, but if similar deals could be effected with other interested European countries, the combined amount might be the equivalent of the American deal which the NHL has long sought.

That amount money would open the NHL's ears and make Europe the new piper of the league.  What would they demand in return?

 

The most obvious answer would be a European branch of the NHL which would increase European interest and European television revenue.

The NHL could place franchises in European cities where hockey has some roots.

It could hardly do much worse than some of the American expansion choices it's made during the Bettman years.

By signing the Scandinavian television deal, it's obvious that Bettman isn't putting all his television revenue in one basket.  If he can't deliver on America, he can get compensation from Europe.

It wouldn't only be Bettman and the Board of Governors who would welcome more European money and contact.

All the NHL European players would certainly welcome closer ties.  Young European boys dreaming of future NHL careers would be ecstatic to play for NHL franchises located in Europe.  It would also mean more hockey jobs for Canadian and American players.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In Canada, the CBC and TSN would be in favor of such an expansion.  That would allow them to broadcast triple headers instead double headers, with an afternoon game from Europe to start things off.

It would mean a drastic change in direction and image for the NHL.  Why be merely a North American league?

It could stick up its nose a bit at its three league rivals.  Time for American fans to "grow up" and accept competition from cities from other countries, become more internationalized like their Canadian counterparts.

But this is for the long or very long term.  What is new is that a potential seed may have been planted.

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