The negotiations between the NBA owners and players are going nowhere. What were supposed to be key talks today yielded absolutely nothing. Players are negotiating contracts to play in countries they hitherto had no idea existed. The general consensus is that the entire season will be lost. The outlook is bleak for the NBA.
The losers in a prolonged NBA lockout are clear. Fans, players, owners, team employees, television networks, etc all have something to lose. There would be, however, no greater beneficiary to the vacuum created by the NBA taking a season off than the NHL.
The NHL stands to gain far more than the other big professional sports leagues. The MLB is a totally different model played in a different season. The NFL is king in North America already so their margin to gain from an NBA lockout is slimmer. Further, the NFL is played on only two (sometimes three) days of the week thus leaving the sports fan looking elsewhere for live sports from Tuesday to Saturday. In both cases, it is comparing apples to oranges.
The NBA and NHL are essentially the same animal. They operate 30 team leagues, which play 82 game seasons through the winter and spring, with games played in 15-20 000 seat arenas (in fact, one arena will often host house both leagues), and team revenues are largely derived from TV deals and corporate boxes/advertising. So if the NBA takes a season off, local companies will need a new place to schmooze clients and the most seamless choice would be to buy a box for the local NHL team. Similarly, if a beleaguered basketball fan is looking to take in a game on a Wednesday, NHL hockey is a sound alternative.
The NBA and the NHL are there for the sports fan on a nightly basis throughout the winter. That is their value. Similarly, the NFL’s two-day extravaganza is extremely compelling. But the NBA and NHL offer a full slate of games (and thus highlight fodder for ESPN and TSN) every night. Imagine a world where in the US Sportscenter is lead by highlights of Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane instead of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant. The NHL even has some momentum from last years highly-watched Stanley Cup Final, won by big-market Boston, to build upon.
And it’s not just the national sports story that will be affected, look how exposed the NHL is regionally to a shutdown of NBA teams already. 13 NBA cities have an NHL team already (LA, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, and New Jersey/Newark) and 6 teams have an NHL team nearby or in-state (LA Clippers/Anaheim, Charlotte/Raleigh (Carolina), Cleveland/Columbus, Oakland (Golden State)/San Jose, Miami and Orlando/Sunrise and Tampa Bay). Basketball fans in all of these cities will be looking to fill the void the NBA left in their sports appetites and the NHL will be right there waiting to sate them.
And that’s really what’s at stake here. Market share. Market share in the collective attention of sports fans. Increased ticket sales, TV viewership, corporate sales, and sponsorships would make a tangible difference in NHL teams’ balance sheets. But all of these gains are temporary unless the NHL is able to ingrain itself in the conscious of the consumers of sports. If the NBA does indeed take a season off, the NHL will need to make the most of it’s time in the spotlight.