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Mark Madden: Forget January; the NHL shouldn't return until October – TribLIVE

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The NHL season is scheduled to start in January … or February. March, perhaps.

But perhaps October of 2021 would be the best idea.

Barring utter failure of the covid vaccine or a chicken-hearted approach to returning to normalcy once it’s taken a foothold, it’s difficult to imagine that hockey still won’t be able to sell tickets by then, hopefully all of them. Hockey is not a made-for-TV sport. Ticket sales account for 37% of revenue, and television contracts are meager.

The NHL’s deal with NBC, which expires after the next season, pays just $200 million per year. The NFL gets $6 billion per, the NBA $2.6 billion, MLB $1.5 billion.

Commissioner Gary Bettman wants the NHL to play ASAP because a lengthy absence could devalue the NHL’s TV deal. He also wants to burn the final season of the current agreement. It’s likely the NHL, at long last, will pursue deals with multiple networks just like the NFL, NBA and MLB.

The NHL and NHL Players Association agreed to a four-year extension of their Collective Bargaining Agreement last July in advance of returning to play. The upcoming season called for the players to defer 10% of their salary and for a 20% escrow.

But now the owners want additional salary deferral and escrow: One report says a total of 26% for the former, 25% for the latter. Players’ salaries also would be pro-rated depending on the length of the season.

Assume the figures listed are true. If the NHL played a 48-game season, a player would get paid 28% of his salary during that season, then wait for deferred payments and escrow.

Sidney Crosby is scheduled to make $9.6 million. He would get $2.68 million during the season. Crosby eventually would get the deferred money, and whatever percentage of escrow is deemed accurate by the salary cap.

Or would he?

The Pittsburgh Penguins owed Mario Lemieux lots of deferred money. He wound up owning the team.

Getting in debt to the players is a dangerous game for NHL teams to play. When that deferred money comes due — in three payments: October ’21, October ’22 and October ’23 — what if the vaccine flops, and ticket sales started later than hoped for?

If hockey starts in January, February or March, tickets might be sold partway through the season and for the playoffs. But, again, what if they’re not?

It might be best for the NHL and for the sport to start again in October of ’21. It’s likely that tickets could be sold, and it gets the league back on its usual calendar.

Hockey is a winter sport. That was proven when this year’s Stanley Cup Final, played in late September, drew the final’s lowest rating since 2007. Hockey, baseball, basketball and football overlapped for a while, and that hurt hockey. The playoffs began Aug. 1, and that’s way off the traditional timetable. But the numbers are the numbers.

The NHL basically would skip a season. That would hurt the players’ wallets.

But what about the owners’ wallets? One report says each team would lose about $150 million if a TV-only season is played. Should the owners be expected to do that? Some reportedly have told Bettman they would prefer to not play.

Waiting till October of ’21 isn’t what the players want. A labor dispute would be triggered. But a labor dispute is in progress right now. It’s just not yet being called that. The players would sue. The NHL would justify via force majeure (the pandemic).

Hockey is my favorite sport, so I hope the NHL plays ASAP for selfish reasons: I want to watch games. But perhaps it would most benefit the league and game to wait.

Few watched the playoffs in August and September. Who would watch them in, say, June and July? How much would it hurt the next television deal if the ratings tanked again?

Categories:
Mark Madden Columns | Penguins/NHL | Sports

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