What to expect from the NHL this offseason
As the NHL’s annual revenue eclipses the $5 billion mark, the business of the league continues to soar.
“What we’ve shown over the years as a league is that we’re flexible and willing to constantly evolve and improve,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters at the start of the Stanley Cup Final.
The evolution does not take a break during the brief offseason, which after the playoffs, NHL Awards and draft boils down to just July and August before training camps open in September.
After a thrilling seven-game Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues, which saw the Blues win the first title in the franchise’s 52-year history, the NHL enters the offseason with an extensive to-do list. Here’s a rundown of some of the key categories:
■ Labor talks: The current 10-year collective-bargaining agreement, which went into effect in September 2012, has provisions for both the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association to terminate the agreement on Sept. 15, 2020. For this to happen, the NHL must notify the union by Sept. 1, 2019. If the NHL doesn’t opt out, the NHLPA must inform the league within the following two weeks if it wants to terminate the CBA.
There are no indications that either side has made a decision about what it will do. The NHL and NHLPA are engaged in informal talks that are expected to continue into the summer. The union is meeting with players throughout the offseason in North America and Europe, with the re-opener decision a key topic.
■ Sponsorships: The NHL and Dunkin’ took the opportunity before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final in Dunkin’-rich Boston to announce a multiyear extension of their partnership, which began at the league level in 2017. An industry source said the NHL and Honda are also expected to extend their partnership, which began in 2008 and includes title sponsorship of the All-Star Game.
The league would not confirm details of a Honda extension, but Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief business officer and executive vice president, expressed confidence in retaining major sponsors. “We have seen a 100% successful renewal rate,” he said. “I don’t see any concerns with any of the categories we have up.”
The NHL’s $400 million deal with MillerCoors and Molson Coors — which was signed in 2011 and was at the time the biggest sponsorship in the league’s history — expires this summer. A new deal is certain to result in a significant increase for the league. During the Stanley Cup Final, league executives were unwilling to say if the partnership would be extended or if a new beer brand will come aboard. “We are very pleased with the discussions we’ve had to date,” Wachtel said.
■ U.S. media rights: The NHL’s 10-year deal with NBC expires in two years. In 2012, the $200 million-a-year agreement was a windfall for the NHL, but the league knows it stands to generate far greater revenue with its next U.S. media rights deal.
The debate facing Bettman and his colleagues is whether the NHL should have an exclusive deal — like its current one with NBC — or seek multiple networks. In an interview last month with SBJ’s John Ourand at the Leaders Sport Business Summit, Bettman may have showed his hand when he discussed the benefits of having multiple media partners.
“I know that NBC goes out of their way to promote us very significantly,” Bettman said. “The question — and it’s something ultimately that everybody has to look at — is whether or not you’re better off being promoted multiple places, maybe to a lesser extent, or being centralized where people know exactly where to go look for you. That’s something that will require a fair amount of discussion as we look forward. But it is a time that presents great opportunity.”
A source with knowledge of the contract says it calls for a negotiating window between the NHL and NBC to open at the start of the 2020-21 season, the final year of the contract.
■ Puck and player tracking: Bettman said during the Stanley Cup Final that the technology, which enhances broadcasts and provides crucial data, is on course for a leaguewide rollout during the upcoming season. The technology and the data will support other NHL efforts around legal sports wagering, augmented reality, social media content development and many other emerging technologies.
“There is still a lot of work for us to do,” said David Lehanski, the NHL’s senior vice president of business development and innovation. “We have a floating timeline, but we’re pushing to be in as many arenas as possible next season.”
Said Lehanski, “By getting all this data in real time, we’ll be able to process odds and probabilities for events that can occur within a game and work with certain partners to build applications that will allow fans to engage through a betting app. There’s so much we can do with the data, and we’re getting there.”
■ Gaming:The NHL rapidly entered the sports betting space this past season, making deals with MGM, FanDuel and William Hill between October 2018 and March of this year. Wachtel said the league will be announcing another deal or two before next season.
“It’s truly about fan engagement,” he said. “The data is clear: If you have interest in a sporting event through sports betting, fantasy or predictive, you will engage more.
“We took a short-term approach to the category because we don’t know what’s going to happen and, more importantly, there isn’t scale yet and there won’t be for at least a few more years. We want to test and learn and see what other states legalize it, and see what else transpires in the next year or two.”
Chris Botta is a freelance writer in New York.