CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When the NHL announced its plan for a “Return to Play” in June, the sports world, especially hockey fans were ecstatic for the prospect of live sports on television once again. Though it had only been three months without live sports, those 90+ days felt like years. The Return to Play was some sort of light at the end of a very boring tunnel thanks to the Coronavirus.
Anticipating the start of a Stanley Cup Playoffs, the idea of having no fans in the stands raised eyebrows. Not only would aesthetics be important, so would the quality of play. That left many fans wondering “Would the games be boring to watch?” or “How will the players react when there’s no one in the stands reacting to them?”
We got our answer when the NHL restarted play on Tuesday, July 28, a full 138 days since the sport stood still due to the Coronavirus.
Those skeptical of no fans in the stands seemed to be swayed to a more positive opinion. The addition of fan noise pumping through the speakers, the sounds of skate blades on the ice, and players jawing back and forth has made for an acceptable substitute to what is still the most exciting sport in the world.
Now that the NHL is more than six weeks into their 24-team tournament, one thing has become abundantly clear, hockey lives on with or without fans in the stands. That said, this writer/fan asks: “what exactly is a fan’s worth in the sports, and more specifically, the hockey world?”
From the players’ perspective, fans are the lifeblood of their sport. Their energy can cause a momentum shift that sees even the biggest of leads dissipate in a moment’s notice, or their silence knocks the wind out of an entire team’s sails. Fans give the players purpose and that added jolt of electricity when it seems there’s nothing left in the tank.
From an intrinsic value, fans are what motivates players to be their best. Players want the fans to feel proud, to root and cheer when they do something good and be understanding when they make a costly mistake.
For a professional hockey organization, the equation to calculate a fan’s worth is simple: section + row + seat = ticket cost on gameday. This economic formula is no secret but maintaining any sports league without the fans’ financial support seems to be an impossible task.
Some could argue a Return to Play without fans is a slap in the face by the NHL (and other leagues) with an implied statement of “see, we really don’t need you, just your money and viewership.” Smaller leagues such as the AHL and ECHL are not in a position to continue operations without ticket sales and sponsorships; as there wouldn’t be television revenue if games were played.
As there are currently 20 AHL teams owned by their NHL affiliate, that leaves one-third of the league supported by private owners/businesses. The Charlotte Checkers, owned by Michael Kahn, is one of those teams. The Colorado Eagles and Providence Bruins also fall under this model. The financial commitment to operate a minor league hockey team without the affiliate’s support is daunting for even the wealthiest of owners.
What does this mean for the fans? Everything.
In 2011, the NHL and NBC signed a 10-year, $2 billion USD contract for NBC to have exclusive television rights in the US, to include all Stanley Cup Playoff games. This $200M/year from NBC is a mere drop in the bucket in comparison to ticket revenues year-over-year. In 2011, when the deal with NBC was signed, gate receipts for the 2010-11 season reached $1.29 billion USD. The 2018-19 season produced $1.86 billion USD in gate receipts; a 43% increase from 2010-11 and nearly the entire amount of NBC’s 10-yr deal, according to statista.com.
In 2013, the NHL and Rogers Communications struck a 12-year deal worth $5.232 billion Canadian/$3.969 billion USD. Yearly, the NBC and Rogers television deals rake in $530 million USD per year. Divide that among the current 31-team league, it is roughly $17.1 million USD per year. As gate receipts are an average of $60 million USD per team (per season), television revenues only generate about 28% of what total gate receipts bring in per team each season.
Merchandise sales, sponsorships, and live streaming services (nhl.tv) notwithstanding, the fans, more specifically, their revenue stream is what’s keeping the NHL and other minor leagues afloat. Fans have the right to demand lower ticket costs to attend an NHL game. A family of four should never have to pay in excess of $200 USD (or CAN) to attend a single game in which binoculars are not suggested.
On the other hand, if costly ticket prices remain, player accessibility must be reevaluated. As the fans are providing each team with revenues to support its talent, they owe it to their fans to hold regular meet-and-greets with players. Not only does this give fans an up-close opportunity to thank their favorite player for being a part of their team, but it also gives that player a chance to say “thank you” to the fans on a personal level. This added benefit helps alleviate the high cost of the ticket, vending, and merchandise prices without seemingly much in return.
The bottom line is fans are worth far more than teams/organizations give them credit. The idea of taking fans’ money without much in return is a model that must change. Teams who remain irrelevant in the league have even less to show for their cost(s) of admission. Refusing to attend live sports, once that becomes a viable option, would send a message to the league and its owners that fans deserve more than what they’ve been given over the years. If March through August has taught us anything, it’s the fact that we can survive without attending live sporting events, and given its current situation, enjoy them without actually being there.
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