NHL PA Chief wants a broad national TV contract for hockey
Newly installed NHL Players Association Executive Director Paul Kelly says for hockey to be successful in the United States, NHL games must be on ESPN. He said he and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman plan to begin meeting after the holidays with Versus and ESPN about altering the sport's current contract with Versus. He says with a national TV contract, the sport, which is seeing increased revenues, could solve a lot of its exposure, marketing and attendance problems. Kelly has been visiting all 30 NHL teams. Last week, he met with the Carolina Hurricanes when they were in South Florida to play the Panthers. He’ll visit with the Panthers on the road in January. Here are his answers to a few questions:
Q. You think the NHL needs to be back on ESPN?
A. "I’m not going to second guess what’s gone here, but in retrospect not having this sport continue on ESPN was a big mistake. I understand the reasons for it, and it was a very difficult business climate at the time, Gary [Bettman] did what he thought was best for the NHL … Now times have changed. In my view ESPN needs us. I think they’ve saturated their airwaves with stuff frankly people have become tired of. You can only watch so many college basketball games, before it becomes a blur. You can put so many card games on poker games. I think our sport translates, particularly in high definition, very well on television. The sport is being played better than it’s ever been played in the past. When we were on ESPN, we not only had great games, including the Stanley Cup playoffs. We had the regular hockey tonight program on ESPN2. We had much greater presence on SportsCenter broadcasts and on the advertisements done by ESPN. We’re missing that."
Q. So how do you do you change the existing contract?
A. "You have to have delicate discussions with all the parties and frankly right after the holidays we will have those discussions … And hope to receive some kind of accord with all within the next couple of months."
Q. Will there just always be some non-traditional hockey markets where only a small, passionate fan base will follow the team?
A. "In Florida, obviously, you need to win to keep people coming and when you start to struggle and even play .500 hockey, you’re going to lose some element of your crowd. That having been said, I think it’s important for the game, if we’re going to regain the prominence on the national sports scene in the states, if we’re going to regain our national TV contract in the states, we absolutely have to be in certain markets. We’ve got to be in Florida, we’ve got to be in Atlanta, we’ve got to be in southern California, we’ve got to be in Texas. So there are non-traditional hockey markets, we have to work at. It’s tough on the owners, they’ve got to be more creative, they’re got to charge less for tickets, it’s tougher on the players, although the players they get called upon to do more. And as I understand it, the Panthers they do more than any other single team in terms of activities and interaction with the fans. They don’t seem to mind that, they understand it comes with the territory, it comes with the geography that they’re in."
Q. Doesn’t the contract require a partnership under which the players must help with marketing the game?
A. "That’s the spirit of the contract, the partnership. The reality is it’ll never be a true partnership. These guys own teams and we’re employees, but the way that everybody succeeds in this business now, in a cap system, that is revenue based and with a revenue sharing component to it, is to work together. If we drive the revenues collectively, the owners will do well, the players will do well, they get a bigger piece of the pie. If we drive the revenues over $2.5 billion, we get 57 percent of those revenues in salaries. If the revenues are under $2.5 billion, we only get 55 percent. So it’s in the interest of players to work with together with ownership to get more fans in the seats, to sell more luxury boxes, to get better TV contracts."
Q. But this is a team that hasn’t even made the playoffs since 2000.
A. "A general manager once told me a team really needs to be going either up or down, and a team that’s kind of going in a straight line has a real problem, because they get stuck in that straight line and they can go year after year after year without making the playoffs … It appears Florida has fallen into that rut. What do they need to get out of it? I don’t know. Maybe a blockbuster trade, bringing in a big scorer or another star to help rally the troops. There’s no easy fixes in this game, unfortunately."
Q. Are you satisfied with where the game is?
A. "I think we can do better. I think we can generate more fans, I think we can generate more revenues, I think we can put more people in the seats, not just in Florida. Other than the Canadian cities that are selling out every game already, I think in some of the traditional markets, Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas, Boston, Chicago, I think we can do better. But I think a lot of it does start with television. I think if we can reestablish a national TV presence in the states, a lot of these other components will increase as well. The revenues of the sport are up. This year’s revenues are projected to be up $200 million over last year. They’ve gone from just over $2.3 billion last year, this year they’re projected to be over $2.5 billion. So we’re doing something right, I think within a couple of years, we will be on the doorstep of $3 billion in annual revenues, and that will be very good for owners, for players and for fans. One thing is the international game. We have 30 percent of our players that are from Europe. We have a natural connection to that market place. We support international events, we support participation in the Olympics. We support the creation of a kind of recurring World Cup of hockey in the off two years of the Olympics. We support opening the season in Europeans cities, next year in Stockholm and Prague. The following year the plan is to open in six different cities with 12 teams in six cities including Munich and Helsinki, I think there’s an untapped market over there. The day will come in the next five or six years, you may well see NHL teams based in Europe. It wouldn’t surprise me to see an entire division of five or six cities host NHL franchises. Five years may be ambitious, but 10 years for sure. I think it’s a natural. If you have to fly from Miami to Vancouver, you can fly from Miami to Frankfurt."
Q. But what if you have to go from Vancouver to Frankfurt?
A. "You’ve got to spend a couple extra days."