Why NHL Fans Need the KHL to Succeed

Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The NHL will never improve unless another league threatens to take its perch and its players.

The NHL is getting away with it. Again. No one can stop them, and they know it.

Hope you're enjoying the start of fall.

We're just shy of the one-month anniversary of the dog and pony show and talks between Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and the brothers Fehr have been perfectly useless. That's because the season remains largely untouched and because real pain won't be felt by either side until escrow payments run out and losses of revenue outweigh payroll savings.

This is Bettman's time to shine, these negotiations, and the sort of thing that ensures he's the least-loved man in any NHL arena.

But "negotiations" is a misnomer, because the sides aren't working towards compromise and they certainly aren't equals. These are meetings in which the NHL tells the union what's going to happen. The weeks (or months) between now and the day the NHLPA accepts those terms are the players' ideological Alamo. They aren't going to win.

Because the NHL has no competition.

The players certainly don't represent competition. The 2004-05 lockout saw them take unprecedented paycuts and accept a then-new salary cap. Even galvanized under a veteran union boss like Fehr, they're still at the mercy of their employers.

North America's big three don't present real competition. The NHL pads its wallet in Canada, where hockey is as untouchable as football in the states. Casual interest from fans of the other leagues has helped to grow the game, but it's not bread-and-butter revenue. Any progress made in the U.S. is basically windfall, as four of the top-five and six of the top-ten profit-generating teams are Canadian (where the exchange rate is higher and every game is a sellout).

Worldwide, the NHL is still king. The KHL is the world's second-largest professional hockey league and in its fifth season is still little more than a loose union of 26 independent teams whose only commonality may be that none of them are making money.

Bettman has a monopoly of talent, and he knows it. There is no star in any league who is as good or as important as the third-best player on even the worst NHL team. And if the NHL doesn't want to play contract ball, the Olympics and every other international hockey league/event are going to feature as much talent as North American soccer.

For the big names that have made the jump to the KHL in the last month, the Russian league still poses little threat to the established order.

That's why displaced NHL fans need to embrace it.

When the 2004-05 NHL lockout swallowed an entire season, fans had junior hockey and the AHL to turn to. European leagues in Western and Central Europe were around, but they weren't available for American consumption.

When the NHL left, so did hockey.

This time around, hockey fans have a few more options and countless more ways to access them. The KHL has become the de facto second-place professional league (if only because it's propped up by the Russian government), and most NHL stars have hopped aboard.

Also unlike 2005, streaming internet television allows fans to access the KHL and the NHL stars playing there.

When the WHA forced the NHL to improve in the 1970s by poaching its players with mammoth raises, the league was forced to respond and conditions eventually improved, both for the expanded NHL (which absorbed the WHA) and for the players, who were finally receiving fair compensation.

The KHL is the league best positioned to force change in the NHL today, even though North American fans can't attend games and don't know many of the players.

All it takes is one good television contract.

As NHL owners have made abundantly clear, fans don't matter. The league is beholden to its revenue streams, and gate receipts have increasingly ceded ground to television contracts and other forms of sponsorship on the revenue totem pole. Just consider the $200 million they'll receive from NBC this year whether there's a single hockey game played or not and try to place your ticket and jersey purchases in context with the power of network television.

For networks, live sports are the only programming around which people will still plan the rest of their day and for which advertisers have a captive audience. The value of these deals is going to skyrocket.

The national NHL broadcast deal is set to expire in Canada in the next few years, and Rogers and Bell are both going for CBC's neck in getting its rights. Add that to the $2 billion contract the league signed with NBC and the NHL is going to become increasingly beholden to its television partners.

If the KHL can strike a meaningful television agreement in North America (perhaps with a Leviathan rival sports network still bitter about past dealings with the NHL), Bettman might finally be pressured to keep his business running for more than a few years at a time.

And if the KHL can't take the battle to North America, they can certainly become an influential force in Europe. They have the proximity to become top dog in Western Europe, a market Bettman has been keen on entering into (see the league's Premiere Games series).

Imagine how pleased Bettman would be to see his lucrative European expansion lost to the upstart Russian league.

It's a longshot that the KHL will ever gain such influence in North America, but the toeholds needed to enter the market will always be there because no league locks itself in the basement (or maybe the garage) quite as often and as eagerly as Gary Bettman's NHL. They've suffered more lockouts and forfeited more games (more than 1700) than the other three leagues combined and are still the only major sporting body to surrender an entire season to labor strife.

The NHL is a monopoly, but its vulnerabilities are self-made. One is reminded of the business adage, "find a need to fill it." Now more than ever, it's clear that hockey fans need a better league.

The KHL may never be that league, but it can force improvement upon the NHL.

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