Four ways the NHL could change coming out of the pandemic

Senior Hockey Writer Chris Johnston joins Sportsnet Central to discuss the current situation with the NHL and why a possible season has been delayed.

If one thing is certain about the pandemic we're all living through, it's that when we come out the other side of it -- whenever that may be -- we're destined to experience change in our lives.

For the NHL and the NHLPA, who are currently trying to negotiate money considerations for a likely shortened 2020-21 season, some level of change is inevitable. And not just in the short-term as they discuss things like escrow, salary deferment or, eventually, how to safely get a percentage of fans back in the building. The long-term look of the league could be much different than it was prior to March of 2020.

And the current negotiations could have a lot to do with it. As it stands, the league is asking for $300 million from the players through some combination of salary deferments or escrow to deal with the much lower levels of revenue that will come in. So, perhaps it's time to get creative on how to make up some of that lost money in other ways.

"If I'm a player what I'm asking about is how can we increase revenue?" Elliotte Friedman said on the most recent episode of 31 Thoughts: The Podcast. "If you want me to defer I'll defer, but I want some commitment to growing revenue."

With that in mind, here are four areas where the NHL could come out of the pandemic looking much different, as largely discussed on the podcast.

Bring this one up and most NHL fans are quick to dismiss it. And not just fans, this is something owners and players have generally not been in favour of over the years. While European soccer and hockey teams are all-in on jersey ads, it's something that's only begun to beachhead at the highest levels in North America, where the NBA has added small ads to its jerseys.

The NHL, so far, has still shied away from going this route.

“It’s not an active discussion among NHL clubs,” commissioner Gary Bettman said about jersey ads in 2017. “I always said we wouldn’t be first. OK, great. The NBA is doing it. But it would take an unusual circumstance – which I would define as ‘a lot of money that I’m having trouble comprehending right now’ – for us to even be thinking about it.”

Well, it's hard to imagine a more unusual circumstance than the current conditions the league and players' association are negotiating under.

When most fans hear this suggestion the initial reaction is to shudder and worry about how that would look, especially on the more historic jerseys such as the Canadiens', Maple Leafs' and Rangers'. That may be because the first thing that comes to mind are busy European league jerseys, where ads dominate the sweater, helmet, name it.

If the NHL were to go down this road, though, it would most likely be in a more subtle, tasteful way. It'd be something closer to what the NBA does.

"If you look at the NBA there's a small little logo near the top of the jersey and you can see it, but it's not all over the place. It's enough you know it's there," Friedman said.

"If I'm a player I'm saying 'Yeah I understand, but it's time.' No more of this 'it's tradition, we don't want to touch these jerseys.' If the Boston Celtics can have it, and the New York Knicks can have it...

"If I'm a player I'm simply saying it's time. If you want us to agree to giving back money you have to agree to maximize revenues."

And now, it appears Major League Baseball is also considering ad placement on jerseys.

In the shorter term, Friedman noted one ad-related change that could be activated before fans can safely return to arenas is selling those empty seats to sponsors.

"One of the things I've heard is, for example, if most of these arenas aren't going to have people in can we brand that?" Friedman said on the FAN 650's The Program. "In terms of using sponsors and things like that on the seats. I think that's going to be talked about some more. One call I got in particular is there's some stuff coming here."

If maximizing revenue is a primary goal (and why shouldn't it be?), then adding another couple of teams to the post-season seems like an "everybody wins" situation. Fans get more meaningful games, broadcasters get more thrilling playoff action, the league brings in more revenue, and that all helps the players' outlook.

But again, this is an idea the commissioner has consistently spoken against.

“I’ve never been a fan of expanding the playoffs,” Bettman said as recently as September. “I still believe our competitive balance in our regular season is the strongest in all sports. It will take a fair amount of convincing, to me at least, that we need to be making a change.”

The last time the NHL expanded the number of teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was in 1979-80, after the league absorbed franchises from the World Hockey Association. Then, the number of playoff qualifiers was bumped from 12 up to 16. That was done to accommodate a 21-team league -- now 40 years later the NHL has 31 teams, with a 32nd to be added next season when the Seattle Kraken arrive.

On top of that, the league just expanded the playoffs to 24 teams and added a play-in round for 2020's Return To Play plan and that was met with great fanfare. Now, it's unlikely any expansion would result in 24 playoff teams (or that we'd get that sweet all-day hockey schedule again), but if a play-in round was added and two extra teams from each conference were needed to do it, you'd end up at 20 qualifying teams.

"You ask any team owner the difference in your revenues, ticket sales, everything else when you make the playoffs or miss the playoffs," Friedman said. "Yeah, maybe it's not technically the playoffs, but if you give four more teams the chance to compete in that (play-in) round how many of them are going to be able to say 'OK, our season tickets are going to go up next year, our revenues are going to go up, our sales are going to go up?' If I'm a player that should be the only determining factor.

"And there's a new TV deal coming up in the U.S. Isn't it more valuable with more meaningful games, an extra playoff round, even if it's two out of three, or two games totals goals, or two games and if each team splits then you play a sudden death overtime?"

In the very near future, personal branding is going to become much more important to the business than it is now. We've got a taste of it to this point, but expect this to be an area of growth in the coming years.

What does this mean in NHL circles? That's to be determined, but perhaps, as Jeff Marek recalled on the podcast, it'll be along the lines of something that was attempted before.

In 1989, agent Ritch Winter represented goalie Grant Fuhr and struck a deal with Pepsi where Fuhr would receive payment for wearing red, white and blue pads that resembled a Pepsi can. NHL President John Ziegler prevented that from actually happening.

Conditions are much different today, though, and the winds are blowing in this direction. So could that be a new area of revenue? There would be many things to consider.

"Let's say for argument's sake we're talking Henrik Lundqvist because he's a hugely marketable goaltender," Friedman said. "He goes to Washington and, let's just say it's Coke, says 'we want to sponsor Lundqvist's Capitals pads because your colour is red and we want red Coke pads.' And what if the Capitals have -- and I don't know if they do -- but what if the Capitals have a building deal with Pepsi? Should Lundqvist be able to do that?"

It also might be something the NHL would want to be able to police so that there is some level of protection on their side. There could come a point where things get a little too gimmicky or tacky if there was no oversight.

There is no avoiding what's coming on the gambling front. It's just a matter of when it gets here and what it looks like for the NHL.

Last Thursday, the Canadian federal government introduced a bill proposing to decriminalize single-event sports betting in Canada, which follows a similar trend in the U.S., where states have begun to ease longstanding restrictions. The proposed bill would give provinces and territories in Canada the ability to offer single-end sports betting and oversee it in their jurisdiction.

North America is already far behind Europe in this respect.

As this is unfolding, the NHL is preparing to unveil player tracking, which we got a small taste of how it could be presented in the 2020 playoffs at during the All-Star Game. There is so much more information still to be gleaned from this endeavour and we've only just seen the surface of it.

"I do think the NHL is embracing gambling," Friedman said. "That's coming. All of this player tracking stuff to me it's not really about player tracking, it's as much about gambling as anything else."

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