In November 2016 the NHL made an offer to the NHLPA to extend the CBA in turn they would commit to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The NHLPA rejected the offer and it was announced on April 3, 2017 that the NHL would not break to send the best players to the Games and furthermore Donald Fehr is making an educated assumption that NHL owners will be told not to allow any player to go to the Olympics. The NHL is blowing a huge opportunity in the Asian market by not going to South Korea.
The NHL was first concerned about the cost of travel, accommodation, and insurance for each and every player. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) found the money to cover these expenses for the NHL; proving to the NHL how much they value having a true best on best tournament once every four years. The NHLPA also considers participation in the Olympics as a vital part of growing the game and allowing players to be a part of something that is way bigger than hockey. The Olympics are one time when people collectively watch sports together and cheer for something bigger than sport itself.
Beyond the experience, the NHL is also losing out on a valuable marketing opportunity. While the NHL cannot market itself as it is not an official Olympic sponsor, they are missing out on a key opportunity to bring the faces of NHL stars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Alexander Ovechkin to Asia to play against the best players in the world. They were gifted a unique opportunity to go into a massive, untapped market and start to create a footprint with two best on best tournaments that were already organized them. They were gifted 1 563 534 057 people between China, Japan, and South Korea who had the potential to turn on the television and watch NHL players playing hockey. This does not count Australia, Eastern Europe, Mongolia, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines and many other countries where the Pyeongchang timezone helps viewers experience the Olympics.
The NHL has screwed the pooch on this negotiation. At first they said that the cost was too high to get the players to the Olympics and fully insured once the IOC refused to agree to the same terms as previous Olympics that were overseas. Once the IIHF stepped up to fill in the funding gap, the NHL did not concede their position. The target always seemed to be moving; the destination always pre-determined by what will line the owners pockets in the short-term, not what is best for the long-term growth of the sport.
I think this can all be traced back to a single moment in the 2014 Sochi Olympics when John Tavares suffered a sprained knee in Canada’s quarterfinal game against Latvia. A game where NHL owners were making no money. He was out for the rest of the season and the New York Islanders lost out on potential playoff revenue by not having their number one centre. Islanders GM Garth Snow even said that he would prefer that the NHL not send players because they do not make money directly from the Olympics. Instead Snow wanted to see amateurs go in the NHL’s stead. Even in Sochi the fear was the NHL would not want to go back to the Olympics following the Tavares injury because the costs were too great.
But let’s go back to the idea of potential markets. Between the three countries I already highlighted there are over a billion and a half people. There are probably over a billion more in the prime viewing areas. While these people might never become season ticket holders or attend many actual NHL games, they have the potential to become fans of players or teams or even just the game itself. They should offer a tantalizing market to the NHL of people who could become consumers of the product once they see how great hockey can be. And the NHL is refusing to go even after the IIHF agreed to cover costs. Might I remind you that the NHL has announced that there will be a pre-season game in China between the Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings in Beijing and that they signed a five year deal to bring NHL pre-season games to the country to help develop their hockey program.
On one hand Bettman sees the value and importance of helping a country like China develop a hockey program. Just like Yao Ming and the NBA, the NHL could use something to get a foothold in Asia. However, the NHL refuses to do anything on anyone else’s terms, even when it benefits their goals. Instead of only having 10 pre-season games (estimate) in the five years leading up to Beijing 2022, they could have had those 10 games and an entire Olympic tournament to start to drum up interest in the sport. And I might have many unpopular opinions in these parts, but I think I would be hard pressed to find someone who would say that the Canucks and the Kings will be more interesting than what Canada-USA could have been.
The NHL was given a golden opportunity by the IOC to go into Asia twice over four years with their best players and show a massive population what the highest level of hockey worldwide looks like. Instead of jumping at the chance to go into Asia with their best players playing to win a major tournament the IIHF willing to all the cover costs associated with going to the Olympics. It seems as though the NHL opted out to make a point to the players and the IOC: you give to us what you want or you will get nothing. The NHL might say that they are simply protecting assets after Tavares got injured in Sochi. The main takeaway should be that the NHL has dropped the ball and made a poor business decision based on a short-sighted idea versus the longer-view where they could have entered a massive market with marketable stars who could help grow the game. Instead, they opting out and decided to hitch their wagon to meaningless pre-season games.
The NHL shows it’s true colours once again.