NHL Season Skating on Thin Ice

Mid-January Deadline Looms for Losing Another Season

Last year, National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern likened the potential loss of the pro basketball season to nuclear winter. Now, a former NBA executive, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman, is staring at icing a second full season of the puck sport.

The NHL on Dec. 20 scrapped more games through Jan. 14, bringing the total number of cancellations to 625, or 50.8% of what was to be the 2012-13 season, as well as the Jan. 1 Winter Classic and All-Star Weekend. NHL Deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a conversation with a Toronto radio station put the seasonal point of no return as sometime in mid-January.

The parties, which remain at loggerheads over how to divvy up revenues in the $3.3 billion industry, length of the collective bargaining agreement and free-agency terms, among other items, have not sat down face-to-face since Dec. 13, when negotiations, spurred by mediators, failed to net any progress.

On Friday Dec. 21, published reports indicate that the 700 players who were asked to vote to give the NHLPA's executive board the authorization to file disclaimer of interest in order to dissolve the union and attempt to have the lockout deemed illegal did just that. Whether the executive board will file a disclaimer remains to be seen, but published reports says it has until Jan. 2 to do so. For its part, the NHL last week asked a federal court to declare the legality of the lockout and filed unfair labor practices against the union with the National Labor Relations Board.

At this stage, optimists hope the impasse harkens back to the labor prologue of 1995, when the season resumed that Jan. 20, with the first of what amounted to a truncated 48-game slate. Of course, in another piece of history the 2005 season was lost in its entirety to the labor dispute, its official end declared that Feb. 16.

That opened the door for Comcast, through OLN, now NBC Sports Network, to begin passing the puck sport on a national level. This season was supposed to be the second of a national 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC Sports Group. Moreover, four of  the groups regional sports networks also carry the NHL.

With CNBC and NHL Network teaming with NBC and NBC Sports Network, all of the league’s playoff games aired nationally for the first time in 2012, averaging 1.09 million viewers, the most for postseason in 15 seasons. NHL fare garnered ad sales of just under $150 million on NBC and NBC Sports Network in 2011-12, according to Kantar Media.

“We’re disappointed that the owners and players can’t come to an agreement, and it’s harmful to our business,” said NBC Sports Group in a statement.

Relative to substitute fare, NBC Sports Group said it has “a large amount of quality live-event programming, including soccer, boxing, college hockey and college basketball, that will air in place of NHL games.” NBC Sports Network has also revisited the 2012 Summer Games with “Return to London” encores.

At this stage, NBC has only lost the Black Friday game, with the showpiece, the Winter Classic, the next casualty on New Year's Day.

For its part, Fox Sports Networks has a dozen regional sports networks that typically carry NHL action.

“Live local sports is the cornerstone of what we do. When we lose live local sports, that’s not good for us. You can’t replace it,” said Jeff Krolik, executive vice president for Fox Sports Networks in a statement.We’re still hoping they can salvage the season.  It would be in every one’s best interest—especially the fans.”

Fox Sports has picked up the NHL slack with NBA games in a number of markets, as well as with college hoops, UFC and classic NHL contests.

Although NBC and NBC Sports would add another year to the national deal if the season is dumped, it’s unclear how that would play out for regional rights-holders, whose respective contracts are with the clubs. 

If ownership and the players can reach an accord over the next few weeks and the NHL were to establish a 48-game regular season, the Stanley Cup Finals would push into late June – in 1995, the New Jersey Devils capped a championship sweep of the Detroit Red Wings on June 24. At this point, NHL fans and rights-holders would likely sign up to play on the slushy ice of early summer.