Why The NHL Needs The Olympics

Just because my focus is primarily on the numbers, doesn’t mean I don’t care about non-statistical topics every now and then.  In fact, I care quite a bit about non-statistical topics, such as sportsmanship and camaraderie, but this time my non-statistical opinion lies with another ‘water’ sport, hockey.

Now when it comes to professional sports, I am more of a playoffs fan than anything else.  I pay attention to the regular season, but in general I follow players more than teams.  And when it comes to the playoffs, unless there is a championship on the line, there is rarely a game that I will stay up late to watch.

But in my mind, the Olympics are not the same as professional sports.  Yes professional athletes compete and yes there is money involved, but the reason I separate the two is because in the Olympics it is easier to see how much pride, national pride to be exact, serves as the primary motivator over money.  Nobody wants to win a gold medal because it will make them rich, they want to win a gold medal because it’s a gold medal, and it is something that has the ability to unite an entire country.  Arguably professional championships do just the opposite.  I don’t have enough time left in my life to research every positive/negative tabloid article about the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry, but it amazes me sometimes to see how much two American cities, so rich in historic culture, can despise each other at certain times of the year.

Ever notice after a professional sporting season ends that the news immediately focuses on the amount of money for which coaches and players renew their contracts?  That doesn’t happen after the Olympics, which is why I believe that money is more of a motivator in professional sports.  It’s almost as if Olympic pride makes you forget about money, but professional pride makes you want more.

Still disagree?  Well ask yourself this question.  How many professional athletes would still compete on a $2,000 monthly stipend for a chance to win a championship every four years rather than one?

So why is it that the NHL owners want to prohibit their players from competing in the 2018 Olympics?  Money, of course.  Forbes estimates that the combined value of all NHL teams is roughly $12B, and brings in a little over $2.5B in revenue.  With roughly 660 players (assuming 30 teams with 22 players, the maximum number allowed, each), this equates to each player being worth ~$19M, and the latest NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement states that the minimum annual salary for an NHL player is ~$500,000.

That’s a lot of money at stake, so I understand why the league is expressing their concern, but I don’t think they are fully contemplating the benefit the Olympics give to the NHL.  You see, with the Olympics, everything is amplified, and not just domestically, but globally.

Don’t believe me?  TJ Oshie tripled his Twitter followers to 240k in the days after his shootout victory over the Russian hockey team this past month in a game equivalent to the regular season in the NHL.  A game in which 6.4M people watched.  As a frame of reference, 4.0M people watched Game 3 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals.

Let me sum that up, 60% more people, myself included, would rather spend their Saturday morning watching an Olympic ‘regular season’ hockey game than a primetime Stanley Cup Final matchup.  Case in point, the NHL is incapable of attracting the same attention as the Olympics.

Furthermore, Vladimir Putin attended the USA vs. Russia game, which is equally significant as Obama attending the IOC Delegation in 2009 to show favor towards the Chicago big for the 2016 games.  Also worth noting, but on the opposite side of the spectrum, Obama did not attend any of the 2013 Stanley Cup final games, even though the Chicago Blackhawks were competing (and ultimately went on to win the series).  The reason?  National pride.

Now of the ~660 NHL players, 148 (across all 30 teams) were represented in the Olympics, and if, hypothetically speaking, all of them suffered season ending injuries while playing in Sochi, would the NHL lose 22% of its revenue?  No.  Would an asterisk be placed next to the names on the Stanley Cup stating that they didn’t really win because some of the best players were injured?  No.  Will any fans really care in a season or two from now when the injured players are back on the ice?  No.

When those professional athletes stepped onto the ice in Sochi they immediately took on the role of ambassador’s for their respective countries.  Regardless of their professional affiliation, they united to play together not for money, but for national pride.  Question it all you want, but there isn’t a single NHL team that has more fans that the population of Canada or the United States or Russia.  Cities may rally around professional championships, but nations rally around gold medals.

Don’t get me wrong, injuries are awful no matter what the skill level of the athlete.  But they are as much a part of hockey as falling down in snowboard cross, or crashing in NASCAR.  Nobody wants them to happen, but when a player is injured representing their country as opposed to their respective professional affiliation, it’s almost as if there is a form of forgiveness attached.

I mean no disrespect with the analogy I am about to make, but I do feel that it is worth noting that when Pat Tillman decided to forgo a $3M contract to enlist in the US Military in 2002, he was rightfully praised.  He put aside his professional affiliation to defend his country and unfortunately and tragically died doing so.  I am in no way comparing the Olympics to war, but I am making a diplomacy comparison.  In a way, Tillman sent the same message that the NHL players who chose to compete in the Olympics made and that is to represent their country is worth risking their professional careers.

The president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, René Fasel, was quoted in Sochi as saying, “there is nothing like an Olympic Gold Medal in the life of an athlete.  Nothing.”  I couldn’t agree more, and all of the 148 players in Sochi probably do as well, but the NHL owners would rather listen to Gordon Gekko who said, even back in 1987, “don’t get emotional about a stock, it clouds the judgment.”

At the end of the day, whether it’s the Olympics or NHL, I understand that it all comes down to money but the age-old question is how much is enough?  What is the value of the reputational risk of the NHL banning its players from competing in the Olympics?  I’m not qualified enough to suggest whether the NHL and IIHF can work out some form of agreement, be it revenue sharing or an insurance policy, but if I use myself as a sample size of one then I can safely say that the Olympics only serve to increase the fan base of the NHL.

And heck, if all else fails and it truly does come down to money and nothing else, then maybe the IOC should just buy a few of the lower valued teams to block and vote prohibiting NHL players from participating in the Olympics.   Food for thought, but that’s what an opinion is.


Originally Published: March 9th, 2014 by Elliot Meena