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Volume 23 No. 17
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NHL on solid ice to move up to No. 3 league

After many years of solidly serving as the fourth largest North American professional sports league, is it possible the NHL could move into the top three?

Longtime practitioners will scoff at the idea but leaving out the untouchable NFL, it’s feasible the NHL could catch game-heavy MLB napping. Or, that the globally relevant NBA will overlook some concerning trends.

First, the reigning silver medalist, MLB, is dealing with a well-documented aging fan base and a product apparently lacking in appeal to millennials and next-gen savants. In fact, in an age of TikTok and Twitter, baseball must address an overly long schedule that produces far too many meaningless games.

We’ll grant you MLB is enjoying growing franchise values, offering mega salaries and scoring some rich media deals, but those headlines are masking a reliance on cable, RSNs and traditional media formulas. Said another way, as the world moves toward à la carte menus and shorter attention spans, baseball’s metaphorical restaurant is offering seven-course meals when young customers want drive-through.

As for the NBA, long America’s media darling, the hoopsters face numerous challenges after many years of growth and innovation. Both of us have publicly suggested basketball might soon push soccer as the world’s No. 1 sport, but recently we’ve seen evidence suggesting we’ll need to eat our words. The NBA’s firestorm in China, coupled with lower ratings/ticket sales (2019-20 season), the decline of the Golden State Warriors, increased player movement between teams and a cohort of clubs facing ongoing financial issues is causing quiet questioning of the league’s always-rosy future.

Eating into MLB and the NBA’s market share is none other than Major League Soccer, which no one should discount. Commissioner Don Garber has done a spectacular job expanding his ownership footprint across the U.S. and Canada, and numerous teams have developed some of this continent’s most avid fan bases. Even better, MLS is scheduled to hit 30 franchises by 2022, the same threshold as the big four.

The downside for MLS? Well, it’s a harsh reality for American pro soccer that leagues such as the EPL, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga — not to mention the Champions League (UEFA) — are targeting North America. That will make global market penetration for MLS difficult.

All of the above suggests the NHL faces long odds skating into third place. But here are a few things worth noting about the stick-and-puck gang:

■ The NHL’s outdoor games continually show how the league is willing to get outside the arena box and leverage the game’s original roots. This year, the NHL will have staged three ‘classics’ with the Stadium Series game at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs on Feb. 15.

■ Las Vegas is a notable example of the NHL figuring out how to enter one of America’s most dynamic cities well ahead of the pack.  

■ Placing a team in Seattle (faster than the NBA) showed the NHL is hip to the technological relevancy of this rainy Northwestern city and understands the value of a ready-made rivalry with Vancouver.

■ After many years of uncertain TV deals in the U.S., the NHL has a solid partnership with NBC and, in Canada, the massive 12-year, $5.2 billion 2013 deal with Rogers Sportsnet will bring in never-seen-before resources. 

■ The Stanley Cup, perhaps the most attractive and historically interesting trophy in the major leagues, is an advantage to the NHL and it consistently leverages it as such.

■ The international opportunities for the NHL are on the rise, with overseas games played regularly in front of large audiences. Between 2018-20, the NHL will have staged nine regular-season games in Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, with an additional six exhibition games in Switzerland and Germany.

Despite these sound bites, the NHL doesn’t have everything solved. The league trails the others in appeal to African Americans, Latinos and Asians and will find it hard to copy the NBA’s game plan when it comes to aggressively targeting Africa, India, Brazil, China, Japan or Korea. It also lacks a female line extension (think WNBA or Australia’s AFLW) and thus abdicates a leadership play with more than half of the U.S. and Canadian population (that’s right: statistically there are more women than men in the U.S. and Canada).

What the NHL does have, though, is continuity with Commissioner Gary Bettman (now in his 27th season), labor peace with its players association (the NHLPA) and a product getting sticky with it via social media. The NHL also has started to implement zero-tolerance policies for teams failing to grasp the concept of acting appropriately toward all races, genders and sexual orientations. This alone may emerge as a true differentiator when it comes to the sensitivities of a complex global society.

In summary, we think the NHL can move up in the standings if it keeps going top shelf. And, if the NHL was ever a first-mover into Northern Europe (as it was with Vegas), it just might surprise folks how Commissioner Bettman’s vision quietly transformed a league and generated big international relevance.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League. Norm O’Reilly is director of the International Institute for Sport Business & Leadership at the University of Guelph and partner consultant at T1.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at