The NHL on Tuesday unveiled a detailed plan to return in mid-July or later for a 24-team NHL Playoffs, after the league halted its season on March 12 due to coronavirus concerns.
The multi-phase plan would allow players to start practicing in small groups at their team facilities in the first week of June (that’s Phase 2); in Phase 3, no sooner than mid-July, formal training camps would begin, depending on local safety guidelines. In Phase 4, all 24 teams in the Playoffs (the top 12 teams in each NHL conference on March 12, when the season paused) would head to two “hub cities,” yet to be named, to play the postseason with no fans present.
Games with no fans means no game day revenue—no ticket sales, concessions, merchandise, or parking fees. The NHL, like Major League Soccer, gets the vast majority of its overall revenue from game days.
Now NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman tells Yahoo Finance Live, “Monetization is not what’s driving us. This is not something that’s going to bring in a lot of revenues relative to what our projections were for the ‘19-’20 season. What’s at play by playing the rest of the games, ostensibly for television, is not as material as our other sources of revenues. We’re doing this because we’re hearing from our fans that they want to see us back and they want to see a conclusion to the ‘19-’20 season, even if that’s on television [with no fans present].”
Bettman’s claim that returning to play isn’t about money may sound somewhat disingenuous: of course the league wants money, and returning for the Playoffs, even with no fans, will bring the league more money than not returning to finish the season at all. Returning will at least give NBC Sports something to broadcast in the summer, when it would have had the Tokyo Olympics, which have been pushed to 2021; returning should make some NHL sponsors happy for the exposure.
But Bettman’s point is that either way, the 2019-2020 season is a financial disaster for the NHL relative to normal seasons, whether it returns to wrap up or not.
That’s sure to be the case for all the leagues that paused their seasons in March (NBA, MLS, NHL) and for MLB, which should have started its season on March 26 but may not have a season at all. Only the NFL still looks like it could actually start its 2020 season on time, as planned. That league is least reliant on game day revenues; the NFL can easily play with no fans if it must, since the biggest money comes from television. (There are also concerns across the sports industry that many fans may not want to return to games in person even once they’re allowed.)
Of course, the biggest pitfalls of the NHL’s plan are coronavirus-related: if the U.S. sees a new spike in cases before July, that could derail the leagues from coming back. And for the NHL specifically, travel back to the U.S. or Canada may be an issue for players who have been quarantining in other countries.
“There are some issues crossing borders and having to quarantine that we have to deal with,” Bettman acknowledges. “Once we get everybody back and they’re feeling ready, we can go into formal training camp. The notion of getting everybody back is why I can’t give fixed dates on phases 3 and 4… The last time we did a head count, 44% of our players were in the markets in which they play, and 17% of our players were outside North America. So we’ve got some moving around to do.”
Bettman also appeared to comment on what Major League Baseball is going through: a dispute over the planned revenue split between team owners and players if the league returns for an 82-game season. Bettman suggests the NHL doesn’t have that problem, though player compensation specifics were not yet mapped out in the NHL’s return plan.