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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Is the NHL Dead?

Someone has to ask the question.

The labor difficulties underscore a business model that just isn't working.  There are too many teams and waning interest in the U.S.  Before hockey fans argue that this is just a (new) phase, remember, there was a lockout for an entire season within the past decade.  Also remember that as culture evolves, so do the games we play, watch and pay for.  Professional tennis doesn't have the following it did in the days of McEnroe, Connors and Borg, and horse racing, one a top-five sport, is but a distant memory, the sport of the very rich, but not of kings.  And boxing has become all but irrelevant.

Is hockey next on the scrap heap, ready for the sports archaeologists?  I don't mean to be harsh, but perhaps the NHL needs to revisit the business model, have many fewer teams, have many fewer teams make the playoffs, and play fewer games.  In other words, make the game more scarce, have the people who are interested hunger more for it, and create a buzz precisely because the product hasn't over saturated the sports world.  That's not to say a reversion to six teams is necessary, just many fewer than the current number.  That's not to say a 20-game season is necessary, but a season that doesn't involve say 80 regular-season games to eliminate only half the teams and then have the Stanley Cup winner perhaps play over 20 playoff games.  Sure, the league can make money through this type of structure, but the emphasis is on the word "can."  Why?  Because the model hasn't worked.

Even if the NHL were to end the lockout and solve its labor problems, it still has underlying problems that are sending it on the road to oblivion.  The talk of the past month has been the NFL, college football and college basketball, as well as the NBA.  The NHL?  Other sports have filled the void, including an increased attention on international soccer (which I find quite compelling), especially the English Premier League.

Both sides -- the owners and the players -- are losing here, not to mention the fans and the people whose livelihood depends on the NHL's playing its season.  Whoever would have thought that the U.S. Congress and the President would be more likely to agree on the fiscal cliff than the owners and players would agree on a contract?  But those are the times in which we live, where people tend to relish their polarization, even if it is destructive.

If the NHL doesn't play this year, what's the point?


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