The New NHL TV Deal Debate… NHL Confusing in Contract Year

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

Superficially this seems like a no brainer. The NHL is coming off of record television ratings after last season. Strike while the iron is hot, cable and television networks… right? The NHL is suddenly a hot commodity again and so it the rights must be quickly nabbed up. The network to act the fastest gets the rights to the hot and suddenly fast-growing NHL.

The analogy is almost too perfect. How many times have knowledgeable sports people witnessed a player play great in a contract year, sign a big deal, then completely suck for the duration of the new contract?

For non-NHL fans, think about Adrian Beltre. In 2004, a contract season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Adrian Beltre hit .334, slammed 48 homers, and finished second in MVP voting. He then signed a five-year deal with the Seattle Mariners that paid him between $11.4M and $13.4M over the next five seasons. In that same time span he never hit over .276 and never hit more than 26 home runs in a single season.

NHL fans likely know the story of Chris Drury. The would-be greatest young player in the NHL at one point signed a big five-year contract with the New York Rangers after a season where he scored a career-high 30 goals (no, that’s not that good if you’re still reading non-NHL fans). Drury still has $21M remaining on that contract, though he has never scored more than 70 points in a single season in the NHL – not exactly big time star money that is deserved.

The NHL was in a contract year last season. Knowing that the silly season of television contract negotiating was upcoming, the NHL just so-happened to put on a great show, with a well-timed contract year coinciding with a slight pause in the regular season while the league’s players gained notoriety while playing in the Olympics. The league received a notable post-Olympics ratings boost that carried it through the entire post-season, when two popular, big-market teams battled for the Stanley Cup.

As TV networks contemplate the idea of signing on with the NHL for a big chunk of money, buyer must beware of the player in a contract year. A great performance in the clutch is always helpful, but it also serves as a mirage, inflating the price of the contract while only laying the groundwork for too-high expectations and crash that’s sure to follow.

While the league enjoyed getting some fans back after the strike with the post-Olympics ratings bump, let’s not forget that the league had a hugely devastating strike that crippled the sport’s growth and was a major setback for the league’s growth. It is hard to predict what will happen the next time the NHL has to negotiate a labor deal.

Perhaps the most important point – aside from the fact that the league’s value is inflated with an Olympics bump that will eventually disappear – is that this sport just does not translate well to television. More than any other contributing factor to this deal, a network executive must consider that hockey on TV is just hard to follow for casual fans. As has been discussed on this website before, the casual fan fuels a sport’s popularity. An appeal must be made to attract casual fans, and the NHL has always excelled and drawing and keeping diehards, but the casual fan is historically elusive, and that still rings true.

Personally, I would love to see the NHL sign a nice TV contract and regain some popularity it’s lost in the general sports landscape. I am a hockey fan (the song that plays in the United Center after the Chicago Blackhawks score a goal is my ringtone). But a TV executive would be a fool to sign the NHL to a big time contract right now. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of the player in the contract year pulling out all of the stops to secure big money, then relaxing on a nice fat contract. The NHL is no different than Adrian Beltre. It just remains to be seen how smart the networks will be. To me it’s clear – buyer beware.

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