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The NHL’s 2021 Problem

By: Sami Pulley

We have all been quarantined for months and constantly make jokes that 2020 is a terrible year. However, 2021 may be the most problematic for the NHL (No, there will not be another lockout). In a typical year, the dual-country league would be three months into the season when the calendar flips to a new year. That will not be the case this season. We do not know for sure when the puck will drop on a new season, nor do we know what the schedule will hold. Many factors must be considered for the league to award another Stanley Cup.

On October 6, 2020, the NHL announced its intention to start its 104th season on January 1, 2021.[i] The 31-team league typically operates a six-month regular season from October to early April consisting of 82 games. There are breaks for Christmas and the collectively bargained for week off in January either before or after the league’s all-star festivities. Should the season start January 1st as intended, the regular season would conclude at the end of June. The playoffs would conclude approximately two months later in August. Herein lies the problem: How does the NHL plan to host the season with the inability to cross the US-Canadian border? Further, how does NBC intend to air both the NHL playoffs and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021?

The NHL is comprised of 24 US teams and seven Canadian teams. The current state of the pandemic does not permit recreational border crossings. It is improbable for the NHL to operate “as usual” under these circumstances. Only the NHL has such a significant problem; the MLB and NBA each have one team in Toronto. The MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays hosted 2020 home games in Buffalo, NY.[ii] The NBA has not yet announced plans for its upcoming season, though NBA Commissioner Adam Silver believes it will not begin until 2021.[iii] The MLS has teams in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, each finding their respective temporary homes in Harrison, NJ[iv], East Hartford, CT[v], and Portland, OR.[vi]

It is not feasible to move seven teams so that the NHL can reasonably host its upcoming season. The cost alone may prevent the clubs from relocating. Notable NHL Reporter Elliotte Friedman reported on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada that the 2020 NHL Playoff bubbles cost $75-90 million in comparison to the NBA’s $170 million Disney bubble.[vii] It is worth noting that these figures reflect reported costs the leagues took on, rather than those which local communities or businesses may have subsidized. The NHL bubbles lasted about two and half months and played host to 24 teams (six Canadian – two of which were “hosts”), some for as little as two weeks. Further, the exchange rate is favoring the US dollar. If Canadian clubs are forced to take on the financial burden of a season long relocation, those clubs would pay a premium to convert from the Canadian dollar, 1 CAD is approximately .75 USD.

The NHL and its players, which represent more than 15 countries, face a number of immigration issues.[viii]For the NHL to host the 2020 playoffs, it needed to call in political favor with Canada and abide by all local and national COVID regulations. But this is the least of the league’s problems.

The NHL will likely not have a choice as to whether they force teams to relocate or bubble. The current geographic make-up and diversity of COVID protocol will lead to an outbreak, like the NFL,[ix] if they do not seclude themselves. The league could bubble in two markets or even bubble regionally. If bubbling, it is quite possible that the league shifts to an MLB type schedule within the regional bubbles where the same teams compete for a series of games and move on to the next bubble or team within the bubble. A large factor in determining how the league will operate will depend on the ability of fans to attend games and a vaccine, which may be imminent or not depending on who you ask. Revenue is a huge concern because players are losing money to the league from the escrow account via revenue sharing, per the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement and the 2020 extension.[x] Besides, we do not know whether the players will be able to get the vaccine, let alone if players will have side effects or the league’s insurance will permit players to take it. Either way, the NHL has a lot to consider when scheduling and operating its upcoming season.

In the alternative, Bill Foley, owner of the Vegas Golden Knights, recently reported that the league has discussed no more than a 60-game regular season beginning February 1st.[xi] His discussion went on to note that the season schedule will likely call for divisional and conference realignment. Citing the travel restrictions noted above, Foley referenced an all Canadian division to limit border travel. In a league that typically sees a minimum of two games against each club every season, many exciting matchups will be lost. NBC usually highlights the Stanley Cup Finals rematches and games featuring the latest top draft choices, league stars, and players returning to compete against long-time clubs. Under realignment, fans likely will not see Dallas’ attempt at redemption against Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers’ first-overall selection, Alexis Lafreniere, faceoff against Los Angeles’ second-overall, Quinton Byfield, nor Toronto’s ‘Jumbo’ Joe Thorton return to long time home, San Jose. Though, if some portion of this plan moves forward, this will not be the first time in recent years that the NHL has hosted a shortened season without interconference play. In 2012-13, the labor dispute between the NHL and NHLPA caused a lockout.[xii] The lockout ended in early January 2013 and the league began play of its 48-game schedule on January 19th, cancelling the annual Winter Classic and All-Star Games.[xiii] It is very possible that the league’s 104th season closely resembles its 96th.

Further, what influence will NBC, the NHL’s US media partner, have in the NHL’s schedule? It is likely that NBC mandates that the NHL concludes its regular season and playoffs prior to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics held in 2021. The NHL and NBC signed a ten-year, $2 billion deal with NBC in 2011, which is set to expire at the conclusion of the upcoming 2021 season.[xiv] If the NHL does not re-up with NBC or chooses to sign concurrent deals with NBC and other outlets, as has become popular in other US based sports leagues, there may not be much motivating NBC to broadcast NHL games during the Olympics. NBC holds a $4.38 billion contract with the International Olympic Committee, which is set to expire at the conclusion of the 2020 Games; however, NBC extended that deal in 2014 for $7.75 billion, which is set to expire in 2032.[xv] The two-week event is worth approximately $559 million to NBC, compared to the $200 million per year for the media rights to NHL. Simple math and economics suggest NBC will use their influence to ensure that nothing interferes with their Olympics broadcast deal. Although, it is important to consider the impact COVID will have on Olympic advertising in comparison to NHL advertisers. Additionally, if the two events occur simultaneously, viewers will likely be more inclined to watch live NHL broadcasts over previously recorded and live streamed Olympic competitions held 13 hours earlier. Clearly the NHL has a lot to consider.

The NBA will need to evaluate similar issues leading to their 2021 season but they will not have as large an immigration or media issue. The NBA will, however, need to reevaluate their schedule to permit their players to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.

References:

[i] Tom Gulitti, NHL season start targeted for Jan.1, 2021, (Oct. 6, 2020), https://www.nhl.com/news/nhl-season-start-targeted-for-january-1-2021/c-319322070 [ii] Por Keegan Matheson, Blue Jays to play home games in Buffalo, (July 24, 2020), https://www.mlb.com/bluejays/news/blue-jays-buffalo-home-games-2020 [iii] Steve Popper, Adam Silver now envisions new NBA season not starting until 2021, (Sept. 22, 2020), https://www.newsday.com/sports/basketball/nba-2020-21-season-start-date-adam-silver-1.49671348 [iv] Pat Hickey, Home away from home: Montreal Impact to continue MLS season in N.J., (Sept. 11, 2020), https://montrealgazette.com/sports/soccer/mls/montreal-impact/home-away-from-home-montreal-impact-to-continue-mls-season-in-n-j [v] Governor Lamont Announces Toronto FC Reaches Agreement With State To Play Home Matches at Pratt & Whitney Stadium, (Sept. 11, 2020), https://portal.ct.gov/Office-of-the-Governor/News/Press-Releases/2020/09-2020/Governor-Lamont-Announces-Toronto-FC-Reaches-Agreement-With-State-To-Play-Home-Matches [vi] Dylan Butler, Vancouver Whitecaps “home” vs. Portland Timbers at Providence Park? “It’s 100 percent an away game,” Marc dos Santos said, (Sept. 27, 2020), https://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2020/09/27/vancouver-whitecaps-home-vs-portland-timbers-providence-park-it-s-100-percent-away [vii] Stephen Whyno, (Sept. 26, 2020), https://mobile.twitter.com/SWhyno/status/1310035598523023360 [viii] Ryan Szporer, NHLers by Country: On top of Their Game and the World, (Oct. 4, 2020) https://thehockeywriters.com/current-nhl-players-by-country/ [ix] Jordan Heck, NFL COVID-19 case tracker: Updated list of players who test positive for coronavirus during 2020 season, (Oct. 13, 2020), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/nfl-covid-19-cases-2020-player-list/1571nnsr27yjn1bv9ro3a0hs6e [x] Collective Bargaining Agreement, (last visited Oct. 11, 2020), https://www.nhlpa.com/the-pa/cba [xi] Greg Wyshynski, Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley sees NHL season opening on Feb. 1, (Oct. 14, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/30116859/vegas-golden-knights-owner-bill-foley-sees-nhl-season-opening-feb-1 [xii] Travis Hughes, NHL lockout timeline: Let’s remember the whole nightmare, (Jan. 6, 2013), https://www.sbnation.com/nhl/2013/1/6/3728892/nhl-lockout-timeline-2012-2013 [xiii] NHL’s 99-day schedule starts with 13 games Jan. 19, (Jan. 12, 2013), https://www.nhl.com/news/nhls-99-day-schedule-starts-with-13-games-jan-19/c-649886 [xiv] Joe Lucia, NHL reportedly pausing media rights negotiations until the end of 2020, (June 15, 2020), https://awfulannouncing.com/nhl/nhl-reportedly-pausing-media-rights-negotiations-until-the-end-of-2020.html [xv] Ed Dixon, IOC may face fresh NBC broadcast negotiations for Tokyo 2020, (Aug. 4, 2020), https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/ioc-nbc-broadcast-negotiations-tokyo-2020-tv-deal-coronavirus

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