Gary Bettman Expects NHL Will Lose More Than $1 Billion During 2021 Season

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2021

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with members of the media before being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league is expecting financial losses in the billions during its upcoming 56-game season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bettman told reporters that not playing at all would be less of a money drain than staging games:

"Let me make something really clear: We're coming back to play this season because we think it's important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people—particularly in isolation, or where there are curfews—a sense of normalcy and something to do. It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play. We're going to lose more money, at the club level and the league level, by playing than by not playing."

Bettman said gate revenue makes up around 50 percent of the money that comes into the NHL. Although COVID-19 vaccines are being slowly distributed throughout North America, it's unclear when major public events such as hockey games will be a possibility again.

Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski reported in November some NHL owners lobbied the commissioner to scrap this season, citing the point he brought up Monday. They claimed having games without fans "could be crippling to the bottom line." 

Bettman countered that route could cause significant damage for the future if fans began losing interest and started placing their attention and dollars elsewhere.

Unlike some other American leagues, the NHL doesn't have a massive television deal to provide a safety net when gate revenue hits zero.

The NHL signed a 10-year, $2 billion deal in 2011 to broadcast games on NBC and Versus, which became NBCSN.

That is a significant amount of money, but not for an entire league when spread across 10 years. The NFL, for example, got Fox Sports to pay $3.3 billion in 2018 for just the rights to Thursday Night Football over a five-year period. The NBA gets nearly $2.7 billion annually from its deals with ESPN and Turner Sports.

The NHL can sign a new media rights deal for the 2021-22 season. Front Office Sports' Michael McCarthy and A.J. Perez reported ESPN "is increasingly interested" in submitting a bid for TV coverage in the U.S.