NHL season set to be canceled tomorrow

It would become first league to miss an entire season due to labor impasse

Cup would not be awarded for 1st time since 1919


February 15, 2005|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

The NHL reportedly is set to cancel the rest of its season tomorrow - making this the first major sports league to lose a year's play to a labor dispute and the first time the Stanley Cup would not be awarded since 1919.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will make the official announcement at a New York news conference tomorrow.

The NHL declined to give details about the news conference.

The league locked its players out Sept. 16, contending it could not function under the current business model. The 30 team owners needed "cost certainty," the league said, and a salary cap that linked the NHL's revenues to player costs was the only way that could be achieved.

From the beginning, players association executive director Bob Goodenow said a salary cap was a deal-breaker. The union offered alternatives, including a luxury tax on teams with large payrolls and an immediate 24 percent reduction in player salaries.

The league and the union made an attempt at a settlement over the weekend, meeting in Washington with federal mediators. But the talks, which did not include either Bettman or Goodenow, went nowhere.

Whenever the NHL returns to the ice, experts and die-hard fans say it will have much work to get people back into its arenas.

Sen. John Kerry, who was pictured many times playing in pickup hockey games during last year's presidential campaign, said in an e-mailed statement: "The NHL has a big job ahead of [it].

"Both Major League Baseball and the NBA have come back from similar troubles," the Massachusetts Democrat said. "The NHL has to figure out a way to make hockey more accessible to families and young people, through creative pricing so a dad can actually take his kids to the game without spending a fortune.

"But the bottom line is that the only thing that will really bring back the fans is players finally getting out on the ice and playing 60 minutes of great hockey."

Jonathan L. Bernstein, president of Los Angeles-based Bernstein Crisis Management, said it is vital both the league and the players acknowledge - and apologize to - the people the lockout is hurting the most.

"One thing I haven't seen in any of the coverage recently is a single expression of regret for the impact of this on the fans," he said. "It's been a lot of bickering back and forth between the players union and the league. But the end consumer is essentially being ignored in a lot of what I see, and that's a big mistake."

Bernstein also said both sides have to get hockey fans to believe the lost season was inevitable.

"They have to think very carefully about how to frame the context of any settlement that is made so that the fans' reaction isn't, `They are a lot of greedy people who have cost us a lot of entertainment by their failure to negotiate in good faith,' " said Bernstein, who also edits an international newsletter called Crisis Manager.

Baltimore-based advertising executive Bob Leffler said the union and the league have made a "very, very huge mistake in not finding some common ground.

"In my 25 years in the sports business, it's the biggest miscalculation I've ever seen," he said.

"I'm not saying there's never going to be an NHL again, but I don't know what kind of NHL it's going to be."

The lockout is the second in the past 10 years for the NHL. The first delayed the start of the 1994-95 season for 105 days.

Even though the agreement that ended that lockout was hailed at the time, the league says a majority of its teams lose money.

NHL officials continually point to a report prepared by former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt - and paid for by the owners - that found the league's 30 teams lost a total of $273 million during the 2002-03 season on revenue of $1.996 billion. Some 75 percent of that revenue went to player costs, the report said, as opposed to about 65 percent for the NFL and Major League Baseball and 58 percent for the NBA.

Nineteen teams had operating losses that season, averaging $18 million, and the 11 teams that made money averaged $6.4 million in profits, according to the report, which concluded the "present business model of the National Hockey League is not economically viable."

The union's Goodenow called the study "simply another league public relations initiative."

Major League Baseball, the NBA and NFL have extremely lucrative national television contracts that bring substantial revenues to each team.

The NFL's current TV deals, which expire after next season, are worth a total of $17.6 billion. By contrast, because the NHL's national TV ratings are so small, the national TV contract the league signed with NBC last year called for no upfront rights fee. The contract is similar to the one NBC has with the Arena Football League, in which the league and network share the revenue.

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