The NHL, always and without fail it seems, finds a way to step on its toes at nearly every turn. The old phrase “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” doesn’t seem to apply to the NHL, as whether broken or not, the league tinkers with ideas that aren’t at the real heart of its problems.
Such is the case when reports filtered through this past weekend that the NHL and the Players Association were looking into scrubbing the All-Star Game in favor of international growth opportunities. Instead of a weekend of celebration showcasing the best the league has to offer, the NHL and NHLPA are mulling over a big European event to reaffirm their commitment to growing the game across the world.
The news comes just a month removed from the NHL’s venture into China, where the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings played a pair of preseason games in preparation for the hype train that is to come for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
It’s an idea that, while still in its infancy for the NHL and ultimately may not even come to pass, has started to polarize some hockey fans. On one front is the debate of the use of the NHL’s All-Star weekend, a tournament that every professional sports league partakes in at one point of their season or another. The other is the good old Olympics quandary, since part of the NHL’s motivations behind this idea are directly related to its decision to forgo the tournament next year.
In the interest of fairness, let’s take a look at the issue in its entirety.
Why would the NHL want to get rid of the All-Star Game?
The NHL, for the most part, doesn’t make more hockey fans because of the All-Star Game. The weekend is in celebration of the players, fans, and the wackiness this sport brings to all of our lives. It’s a few days of rest for the hockey world, where sometimes stories like John Scott’s rise to All-Star Game fame culminate in a perfect storm.
The idea behind scrapping the All-Star Game comes from the NHL’s determination to grow the game at an international level. In reality, the idea is less of a way to get rid of the All-Star Game and more of one to maximize the NHL’s resources. The league is going all in on expanding itself worldwide, if the 2017 China Games are any indication, so they likely believe the best use of that time would be on international growth instead of internal.
But, what about the Olympics? That’s a perfect place to grow the game internationally.
It is. It’s the biggest stage in the sports world. Yet, the NHL has its problems with the International Olympic Committee, and that’s why they pulled out of the 2018 Winter Olympics. The NHL and IOC have clashed on insurance and travel costs, and whether the latter will foot the bill. When the International Ice Hockey Federation said they’d cover the costs, it seemed like problem solved. Unfortunately, the NHL wants more than just that.
It’s no secret that the NHL is behind the other major sports in North America when it comes to popularity and money. Hockey has a foothold in Canada, but it’s been tough marketing hockey to the United States when it’s not Stanley Cup playoff time. The NHL is the only major sports league to shut its doors during the Olympics, which means no profits going in and no air time across the country.
As such, the NHL wanted more from the IOC and the IIHF. The IOC restricts the use of their content so sports leagues cannot use their video and such to market themselves. For the NHL, that means moments like T.J. Sochi can’t be taken advantage of by the league to make profits off of. And, considering the NHL’s standing behind the other major sports leagues, being unable to make money off of the Olympics is a non-starter now for Gary Bettman.
Doesn’t that seem ... selfish on the NHL’s part?
In a way. The NBA is under the same rules as the NHL, but the difference lies in endorsements. Twelve members of the 2016 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team earned a total of $257 million through salary and endorsements in the 12 months leading up to the Olympics. Companies like Nike pay big time for NBA stars to wear their brands during the Olympics, and while that money doesn’t go back to the league, it has a positive effect on their standing.
The NHL has nothing close that can compete with that type of money. Sidney Crosby, who remains near the top of the NHL’s highest paid players list, has endorsements that tally just $4.5 million per year, the most for any player in the league.
That is why the NHL bucks so hard at closing down their season — its one big source of revenue — for a full two and a half weeks. The NBA can survive a profitless venture every four years. The NHL doesn’t believe they can.
Will growing the game internationally help the NHL’s revenue?
They seem to think it will. After all, soccer’s Premier League is quite profitable across Europe, with a strong foothold in North America. There are incredibly populous countries across the world that have barely been exposed to hockey, such as China. The KHL and the CWHL have both landed teams in China over the past two years, so there’s clearly a market to be had there.
However, because the NHL wants to do this on its terms, it may take longer to establish itself. The modern Olympics have a history dating back to 1896 as the biggest sports stage in the world. The Olympics draw the most eyeballs, have the most hype, and have the most coverage of almost any sporting event in history. It’s the perfect market to grow a niche sport, and just ask curling how it’s doing after a few Winter Olympics in the spotlight.
Tournaments like the World Cup of Hockey will take a longer time to catch on, if they ever do, but unlike the Olympics, the NHL will directly profit from it. That, it seems, is the tradeoff the NHL is going for when it proposes ideas like shutting down the All-Star Game. Hockey doesn’t seem like it’s growing in North America, so the NHL is taking its show on the road.
Is the All-Star Game worth keeping around?
From the NHL’s long-term standpoint, probably not. In its point of view, the All-Star Game doesn’t do much to generate hype from outside hockey spheres. The NBA has its slam dunk contest while the MLB has the home run derby that draws interest outside of its fan base. The NHL’s closest equivalent, meanwhile, was axed in favor of a goalie shot competition.
The All-Star Game to is a gimmick to many, but that’s the whole point of the matter. For one weekend, NHL players are allowed to showcase some personality that is sorely missing in this sport.
In recent All-Star weekends, we’ve been given:
- A drunk Alex Ovechkin praying to be last to win a car.
- A recreated version of the Tyler Seguin-Phil Kessel trade live on air.
- Brent Burns rocking a Chewbacca mask.
- Jake Voracek using Johnny Gaudreau as a prop.
- John Scott’s rise to NHL folk hero status.
Some of those moments are the most memorable of an NHL season, and they all happened at an All-Star Game. The NHL may not see the point of a frivolous weekend for their wallets, but it’d be sorely missed in the doldrums of a season.