Red Wings v Hurricanes
Dave Sandford  /  Getty Images file
If team owners and the players don't agree on a new contract, the billion dollar hockey industry faces the prospect of a long shutdown, which could severely impact non-traditional hockey towns such as Carolina. Pictured are Carolina Hurricanes fans cheering on their team during the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals.
updated 9/14/2004 1:12:31 PM ET 2004-09-14T17:12:31

When the National Hockey League arrived in Nashville in October, 1998, a crowd of 2,000 lined up outside the arena more than three hours before the first regular-season game.

Players walked into the rink on a plush red carpet and country music stars Vince Gill and Amy Grant were among the capacity crowd of 17,298.

Six years later, the novelty has worn off. Last season, the Predators, whose owner originally paid an $80 million expansion fee, drew on average 13,157 fans a game, 28th among the NHL's 30 teams.

If team owners and the players don't agree on a new contract by midnight Wednesday, the billion dollar hockey industry faces the prospect of a long shutdown.

"The players and owners are skating on thin ice by shutting down the game, pardon the pun," said Paul Susce, owner of a Nashville ticket brokerage across the street from the Gaylord Entertainment Center. "Hockey's just not important here. We don't need it."

There's the rub for the NHL.

When NHL teams eventually return to the ice, the Predators and other franchises in non-traditional markets might face a rude reality if customers have found other ways to spend their disposable income in hockey's absence. It's possible that already foundering fan bases in cities such as Nashville, Atlanta and Carolina could take a further battering.

"When you get back in a car after a long winter, sometimes they don't start up," said Howard Baldwin, who bought the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and watched it spiral toward bankruptcy seven years later.

"There's no question some NHL teams may be in jeopardy even after a settlement," said Baldwin, who is a possible bidder for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks franchise.

The NHL's determination to introduce a salary cap, which would create a fixed limit on team payrolls, won't matter if already nonplussed customers become more disenchanted.

The NHL is a gate-driven league, meaning most team revenue comes from ticket sales.

Lagging attendance in the NHL's already faltering markets might prompt several owners to put their teams into bankruptcy protection or even sell them back to the league, according to several investment bankers who specialize in pro sports.

"It won't be like they take a bullet to the head, but you may see some teams die a slow death," said Sal Galatioto, a managing director with Lehman Brothers, a New York investment bank that's been hired by Walt Disney Co. to sell the money-losing Mighty Ducks.

National Hockey League Players' Association senior director Ted Saskin said the union shares concerns about some of the league's U.S.-based teams.

"We have some questions about whether the markets they are in are the most viable places for professional hockey," Saskin said last week at a sports business conference.

Teams that might be candidates to be shuttered include the Predators, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Atlanta Thrashers, the Penguins and the Phoenix Coyotes, said several people familiar with NHL finances.

Two investment bankers who have worked on several NHL financings in recent months said the Hurricanes and Thrashers last season lost $20 million apiece, while the Coyotes and Predators lost about $10 million each. The Penguins, with the NHL's lowest team payroll, lost an estimated $2 million.

As bad as those balance sheets are, none appears to have been the NHL's worst money losers. The Mighty Ducks are believed to have lost at least $30 million last season and the Washington Capitals are said to have lost $20 million, even after trading several high-priced all-stars. The New York Rangers, meanwhile, may have reported a loss of more than $40 million.

A report prepared by former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission head Arthur Levitt, who was hired by the NHL, alleged in February that the league lost a combined $273 million in its 2002-2003 season, and that 19 teams had operating losses that averaged $18 million.

The NHL won't disclose specific team finances and said it won't reveal last season's losses. Club owners face a $1 million fine if they discuss what the pending shutdown might mean for the sport.

Still, the NHL players union contends losses posted by teams such as the Rangers are misleading.

Cablevision Systems Corp., a New York cable TV operator that owns the Rangers, basketball's Knicks and Madison Square Gardens, typically attributes hockey-related expenses such as player payroll, insurance and marketing costs to the team.

Yet Cablevision can also decide how much its hockey subsidiary should receive for a TV rights fee since the money never leaves the company.

It's just going from one division to another because Cablevision also owns regional sports network MSG, which shows Rangers games.

The NHL union notes that by setting a lower annual rights fee, the Rangers would show a larger team loss.

Wall Street and Canadian and U.S. courts, however, seem to back up the NHL's claim that some of its clubs are strapped for cash, said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago sports consultancy whose clients include YankeeNets LLC.

Credit ratings company Fitch Inc. last year called the NHL the biggest lending risk of the four major North American professional sports leagues. Fitch was the second ratings company in five months to target the NHL as a poor credit risk.

Moreover, franchises in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Ottawa filed for protection from creditors in recent years. Those crippled clubs underscore how bad the NHL business can be for small-market teams, several sports bankers said.

"They are talking about their losses on court documents under the penalty of perjury," said Gordon Saint-Denis, an investment banker with Triton Sports Associates LLC in Mount Kisco, N.Y. "They aren't going to lie. The union just doesn't seem to want to see the truth."

Truth in pro hockey business has historically been hard to discern and may explain why the union still views the league's claims with suspicion.

James Norris, one of the NHL's founding fathers, for instance, at one time owned three of the league's six charter members and loaned enough money to the owner of the Boston Bruins to control his vote on league matters, according to Net Worth: Exploding the Myths of Pro Hockey, a book written by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths that tracks the NHL's evolution.

Norris allegedly hid his NHL interests from players and the media through a series of anonymous private companies and delegates.

Former Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe listed player expenses as being worth $100,001 in 1957. The line item hadn't changed since 1931.

Other clubs would allegedly under-report the seating capacity at their arenas. If a stadium held 14,500 seats but was listed as holding 14,000, revenue from the sale of 20,000 seats over 40 home games could remain confidential and untaxed.

League finances remained in question into the 1990s. When the players went on strike for the first time in 1992, players argued the 21 teams turned a $20 million profit.

Owners said they faced an average $9 million in annual losses.

Now, several former NHL executives said that even though league commissioner Gary Bettman has argued the NHL hasn't considered contracting its ailing franchises, the move could pay dividends.

"It's pretty clear you don't need 30 teams for a compelling and competitive league," said Joseph Cohen, a former chairman of the Los Angeles Kings.

Besides bolstering talent among the NHL's remaining clubs, the move might also help spur each club's TV-related income, Saint-Denis said.

"Each NHL team last season got $6 million from the national TV deal and the average player salary was about $1.8 million," he said. "In the National Football League, the average player salary was $2.2 million and each team got $82 million in national TV revenue.

"There's a pretty clear disconnect there."

That's why former Hartford Whalers owner Richard Gordon doesn't want to get back into the NHL business even if the league convinces the union to accept a salary cap.

"I wouldn't take a team for free," said Gordon, who sold the Whalers to Peter Karmanos in 1994 for $47.5 million. "It's a bad investment."

Even the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning may have come close to losing money last season.

In a one-page financial summary released last week, the Lightning's parent company, Palace Sports & Entertainment Inc., said the team recorded a $3.6 million operating profit last season, thanks to $14.1 million in playoff-related revenue, but has lost $53.9 million in the past five seasons combined, including $19.4 million in 2000-01.

NHL officials said they believe all 30 teams would survive a prolonged lockout.

"Whatever damage might be done by an eventual work stoppage is going to be far less than the damage of continuing under a system that is really economically crippling to our clubs," said Bill Daly, the NHL's executive vice-president and chief legal officer.

"We do less damage to our business by doing what's best to get the right deal than we would by continuing with the status quo."

Yet for teams like the Hurricanes and Predators, the damage from a protracted lockout might be too much to recover from.

"This is NASCAR and football country," said Susce, the Nashville ticket broker. "The Predators were fun when they opened, but it's not like we'll really miss them if we go."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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