NHL teams in perilous times

The current economic climate affects all sports and hockey is no different.

Reports have been swirling around the NHL All-Star weekend that a number of clubs are close to major shake-ups that are based on financial problems.

Several NHL clubs are believed to be struggling financially this season despite efforts from commissioner Gary Bettman to downplay the situation.

The New York Islanders could be moved in a couple of years if plans to renovate their arena immediately continue to be stalled by local politicians.

The ownership group for the Atlanta Thrashers is in a disagreement amongst its members as to the allocation of team funds.

Recent employee layoffs and cutbacks by the Florida Panthers have caused doubts about their future.

The new ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning are said to be losing money.

The ownership group of the Nashville Predators are said to be on the verge of buying unsold tickets in order to qualify for full revenue sharing.

Finally the Phoenix Coyotes is seeking new investors to give the team more disposable revenue.

The teams in question are all notable clubs in one respect or the other.

The Islanders are one of the league’s founding members and are four-time champions.

The Thrashers, Predators and Coyotes are three of the league’s newest and most promising squads.

The Panthers and Lightning are key South Florida teams that have had Stanley Cup berths (and trophies, in the case of Tampa Bay) over the years.

The fact that all are in seemingly bad financial shape is not a good omen for the league.

The league, arguably the premier hockey league in the world, has shut down (or had a ‘lockout’) in the past due to finances. The last time there was an NHL lockdown was in 2005 when labour disputes could not be resolved.

With the way the league has bounced back in recent years (in terms of its marketing and renewed vigour among fans) it would be a shame for the NHL to close up shop yet again.

Granted losing six teams will not necessarily cause a league shutdown. But if their cases bring rise to similar situations in bigger markets like Detroit or Toronto then trouble is eminent.

In short: if many teams are unable to stay on top of their finances then players won’t get paid, tickets will be impossible to sell and another lockout will be on the horizon.

It doesn’t help matters that the executive board of the NHL Players Association recently turned down an opportunity to reopen the collective bargaining agreement with the league.

That agreement would essentially ensure labour peace through the 2010-11 NHL season.

The players association can extend the deal, which ended the yearlong lockout in 2005, for another season if it chooses. That determination likely will not be made until May 2011.

On the other hand Bettman has reason to act calm. It’s no secret that league revenue and profit margins have increased since the last lockout.

These days the league’s estimated annual revenue is around US$2.27 billion.

Attendance figures at the various ice arenas where games are played are back to pre-lockout marks, with the highest numbers consistently coming from Pittsburgh and the Canadian teams.

Finally much of the league’s coverage comes from a TV deal with NBC that gives the NHL a share of revenue from each game’s advertising sales.

In the end the NHL is a league built on its teams and its fans. If it loses either of those two on a large scale then it might as well close down for good.