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Burn the Boats

With lockout, NHL is dangerously playing a dangerous game

By September 17. 2012 9:59AM

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The idea that sports are a business is nothing new, particularly when player contracts, revenue sharing, private sector investment and public stadium construction are getting a growing share not only of the business page, but A1.

But even a gangbusters enterprise like pro sports is no guarantee of financial success, and once again filling the role of cautionary example to everyone else is the National Hockey League, which this weekend locked out its players for the third time since 1994.

If you recall, the NHL in the spring of 1994 was like Will Smith in Bel-Air — right where you wanted to be. A labor dispute was in the process of killing pro baseball and, in what I consider a personal shame that was nonetheless a big achievement for the NHL, the Stanley Cup came to Broadway, putting a very big spotlight on the league. That shining moment was followed by a labor strife-shortened season and, a decade later, the NHL canceled the entire 2004-05 season, by which point the mainstream was far more interested in NASCAR and the world series of poker than it was ice hockey.

The NHL promised it would be a different game when it returned, and to do so, trotted out a series of much-maligned advertisements likening the game to some kind of contest between barbarian ninjas waited on hand and foot by a harem of sex objects. However, the game's popularity has at least pushed it to the point where it's a $3 billion enterprise, and locally, having another epic conference final between the Devils and Rangers did wonders for the game's popularity. Expect the latest round of millionaires vs. billionaires to put a quick stop to that.

The AP file photo journalists are contractually required to publish anytime they are criticizing the easily excitable Gary Bettman.

Often criticized in the labor battling is league commissioner Gary Bettman, who has presided over all three lockouts and inspires as much confidence as a screen door in a spaceship. A Jersey resident, you would think Bettman would take a look at Newark to get a sense of what the league's buffoonic behavior will reap in the Brick City: Aside from the fact that a canceled season could make the Devils' desperate search for money on the ownership side more difficult, you have a shiny new arena that will sit dark, a plethora of restaurants that will sit empty and hundreds of thousands of people no longer visiting the city to take in a game.

Will they come back once the back-and-forth is resolved? Most of the long-timers will. But the casual fans will be lost, and those are the people the NHL needs to bring in. They could add uncouth geometry to the ice, change the rules, even alter how tie games end, and the hardcore fans will still shell out for season tickets and team sweaters. But there aren't enough of those people in the States, and so the NHL is playing the dangerous game of hockey dangerously.

I'm even more irreverent on Twitter @joe_arney.


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