During the last 20 years, the N.H.L. has lost nearly 10 percent of its scheduled games to labor disruptions, a rate of cancellation more than three times greater than any other major sports league in North America.
With the current lockout in its 88th day, negotiators from the N.H.L. and the players union are scheduled to begin a new round of talks Wednesday at an undisclosed location, with federal mediators in attendance. Even if they make rapid progress, the damage done by the third lockout under Commissioner Gary Bettman is likely to affect the league well into the future, advertising and branding experts said.
“Clearly, its business model is dysfunctional,” said Tony Knopp, the chief executive of Spotlight TMS, a company that manages corporate ticket sales. “Things have to be terrible for them to be willing to throw away two seasons in less than 10 years.”
Bettman was hired 20 years ago Wednesday. Since his first full season as the commissioner in 1993-94, 2,224 regular-season N.H.L. games have been canceled because of lockouts in 1994-95, 2004-5 and 2012. That is 9.7 percent of the 22,882 N.H.L. games scheduled from October 1993 through Dec. 30, including the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
No other major league has a similar rate of cancellation over the same period. The next closest is the N.B.A., which also has had three lockouts since 1993 but only lost 3.1 percent of its scheduled regular-season games. Major League Baseball has lost 2.1 percent of its regular-season games and the 1994 postseason to a strike, and the N.F.L. did not cancel any regular-season games last year during its lockout.
“To lose almost 10 percent of your games to lockouts, that’s a chilling number,” said Bob Gutkowski, a partner at the private equity firm Innovative Sports and Entertainment and formerly a member of the N.H.L. Board of Governors as the president of Madison Square Garden.
The N.H.L.’s 2004-5 lockout wiped out the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs, the only season in North American major league sports to be lost to a labor dispute. At that point, the N.H.L. was a money-losing enterprise that had largely receded from the wider sports consciousness in much of the United States.
The league bounced back through rule changes that made the game more exciting, and because the Winter Classic and the Winter Olympics helped draw new fans. Fans in the United States returned with the success of teams in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, and a strong Canadian dollar increased revenue north of the border.
N.H.L. revenue grew from about $2 billion in 2005-6 to $3.3 billion last season. The league’s profitability made this season’s lockout seem counterintuitive.
But today’s N.H.L. is in many ways as troubled as it was before the previous lockout. The Toronto Maple Leafs, the Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens generate about 80 percent of the league’s revenue, according to Forbes magazine’s valuations, which have been disputed but are the most widely used measure of league finances. The magazine estimated that 13 of the league’s 30 teams are losing money, some more than $10 million a year.
“Missing so many games shows that for some of these teams, it’s better when they’re not playing, because then they’re not losing money,” said Drew Dorweiler, a managing partner of the business evaluation firm Dartmouth Partners in Montreal. “In a nutshell, it’s because there’s a structural nonviability of certain franchises in their current locations.”
Dorweiler cited money-losing clubs in Nashville; Columbus, Ohio; Florida; and Phoenix, a team he called a wounded animal.
Despite a new 10-year, $2 billion contract with NBC, Gutkowski said: “The N.H.L. doesn’t get the kind of national TV money that the other leagues get, which means most of revenue is locally driven. And in a lot of markets, it’s very hard to make it work.”
Bettman has often explained that as with the last lockout, this one is about limiting players’ salaries to control costs.
“Too many people are forgetting where we were 10 years ago,” Bettman said last Thursday after he rejected the union’s latest offer for a settlement. “We didn’t have a healthy game and we had too many franchises that couldn’t continue. We did what we had to do in 2004 to make it right, and we’re focused with our owners on what we need to make this game healthy for our fans.”
One way to get healthy is to establish labor peace, said Jay Grossman, an N.H.L. player agent.
“Though the routes that baseball and football have taken to labor peace have been vastly different, both realize that labor peace equates to record growth in revenue and franchise values leaguewide,” he said. “The notion that an unconditional attack on players in three consecutive lockouts will enable growth for every N.H.L. club misses the mark.”
Brian Cooper, the president of the Toronto sports management company S&E Sponsorship Group, said the current lockout would hurt the N.H.L’s business.
“To many people, this has become a pattern, an M.O.,” he said. “It’s almost as if consumers and sponsors are getting the message, ‘Enjoy the next six or seven years, because you know we’re going to be out the year after that.’ ”
He added: “What people want from a brand is consistency of product, accessibility and emotional connection that’s uninterrupted. These lockouts interrupt everything.”
But the N.B.A. came back from a truncated season last year and had its best metrics across the board, Cooper said. “If that can happen,” he said, “maybe the N.H.L. can come back too.”