Like the British economy and the city of New York, professional hockey is in deep trouble. The danger signs are everywhere: dwindling crowds, inflated salaries, too many boring games, microscopic television ratings and franchises tottering perilously close to bankruptcy. Indeed, the sick condition of the sport turned last week's annual "social" meeting of the NHL's Board of Governors at the Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo, Fla. into a serious business discussion dominated by one word: survival. No fishing. No tennis. No golf. No lounging in the sun.
"It used to be that we'd have these social meetings and if someone brought up problems or new ideas hardly anyone would even listen," says General Manager Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders. "But not this time. Everyone came prepared to sit down and discuss everything anyone had to say. I guess some people won't go to the dentist until the tooth's abscessed."
In the last 10 years the NHL has tripled in size from six teams to 18, and the WHA has added 12 more teams. During the same period (see chart) NHL player salaries have risen some 533%, and ticket prices have more than doubled. Teams that once allocated 23.9% of their gross income to players' contracts now must allot twice that. And the NHL, remember, is the only established major league without a lucrative television contract to sweeten the pot; NFL clubs, for instance, each receive more than $2.2 million per year from the networks.
While NHL operating costs have increased, attendance has begun to fall. "When we had just six teams," NHL President Clarence Campbell says, "we frequently played to better than 100% of capacity for a season." During the past two years NHL attendance dropped 10%—more than 1,200 paid admissions per game—and this season the decline is alarming.
Eleven of the NHL's 18 teams have not had even one sellout. The Boston Bruins, who had 117 straight sellouts during the early 1970s, have had only one capacity crowd: for the return of Bobby Orr, who, as it developed, did not return that night. Boston's season-ticket sales have also dropped by some 2,500.
The Chicago Black Hawks paid $3 million to Orr in the hope that he would pack their building and help secure a local television contract, but Chicago's attendance is down more than 1,200 per game—and the Hawks still do not have a TV outlet. The Minnesota North Stars have lost 5,000 fans per game the last two years, and recently needed a fresh $2.5 million stake to help stay afloat. St. Louis has dropped from 99.4% of capacity to 82.5% in the last two years. Both Cleveland and Colorado are drawing fewer people in their new hometowns than they attracted last season in Oakland and Kansas City, respectively; in fact, Cleveland supported its WHA team better than it has the Barons, and the people in Denver have been more enthused about the nightly giveaway of $5,000 in "Puck Bucks" than the play of the Rockies.
No-shows are another increasing concern. Vancouver has had as many as 2,500 empty seats for announced "sellouts," and recent crowds in Detroit, where a man was shot to death in the Olympia parking lot after a tennis match two weeks ago, have been less than half of the announced 8,000 to 10,000.
Three recent expansion franchises—Atlanta, Washington and the New York Islanders—have "modified their debt structure with the league," according to Campbell—meaning they are not currently making payments on their $6 million admission fees. In approving the move of Kansas City to Denver, the NHL wrote off $3.5 million of the club's franchise fee. "All things considered, it also cost us about $11 million for our experiences with a team in Oakland," Campbell says. The next instant disaster area may be in Atlanta, where the Flames—a respectable team on the ice—are woefully underfinanced and need an infusion of at least $3 million to survive the 1976-77 schedule.
The NHL owners intend to take a hard line on their lodge fellows who cannot pay their bills. "We want no more Oaklands," Campbell says. Indeed, as many as four NHL teams may not be in the league next year.
There will be changes, starting immediately, as the league tries to avoid a catastrophe. The haughty old NHL once ignored even basic public relations, but the struggling NHL will enter the marketplace. "We haven't done as much selling and marketing as we should have," says Otto Frenzel, one of the owners of the indigent Pittsburgh Penguins, "but we will—beginning this week—by putting a hard-line corporate approach into ticket and business operations."
Campbell maintains that survival is impossible as long as NHL clubs must commit almost half of their gross income to players' contracts and benefits. "Salaries must get back to 30-32% of the gross pie," he says. "Affluence has taken over, and now many players don't have that spark to do their best. The best incentive for a hockey player is hunger, and we've removed that. We've created a fat cat syndrome, and now we've got to end it—or else."
One obvious way for the NHL to cut back the percentage of income allotted to the players is by eliminating competition through a merger with the rival WHA. "We'll never do that, never," Campbell says. "The WHA clubs we'd want—and there are only two at the most—don't have the resources to indemnify their dropouts or to pay an NHL expansion fee. And a merger would produce too much litigation."
For its part, the WHA understandably would like to merge with the NHL. "The way we're going now, the WHA won't survive two more years," says Dr. Gerry Wilson, a vice-president of the Winnipeg Jets. Bobby Hull, Winnipeg's best player, agrees. "Without a merger this league can't survive, not with 6,000 fans at every game. Almost every team in the WHA is getting worse. We're not getting the top kids, either, because they don't want to play in a second-rate league." Indeed, the jumping trend has reversed: some of the better WHA players, e.g., Rejean Houle, Jim Harrison and Gerry Cheevers, have redefected to the NHL.
Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL's players' association, expects that in the near future hockey's present 30-team establishment will consolidate into one league with a maximum of 20 teams. "The NHL owners think they'll be able to have their tight, neat, little monopoly again," Eagleson says, "but some other types of competition will pop right up. I even see international tournaments along the line of World Championship Tennis as being a very profitable alternative for the players."
For now, the NHL is not thinking about that. "We've got to get people back into our rinks," says Torrey. "Ticket prices may be a problem, but they wouldn't be a problem if we didn't have so many boring games." Boston General Manager Harry Sinden agrees with Torrey. "We're putting people to sleep," he says. "One team came into our building a few weeks ago and spent the entire game icing the puck or freezing it against the boards. We must have had 50 face-offs in their end of the ice. I don't blame the players; they thought they could win the game that way. I'll tell you this, though. Anyone who was at that game looked at the schedule, found out when that club was in town next and made other plans." Sinden has suggested to the NHL governors that visiting teams be given three points—not the present two—for a victory on the road. "It would help stimulate competition," he says. No one has laughed at the idea.
Torrey, Sinden and the other general managers—Campbell, too—also would like the referees to stop blowing their whistles so quickly. To a man, they feel the anti-violence rules installed this season were overreactions that have eliminated much of the hitting from the game.
What the NHL needs most, though, is rivalries. "We've got to build up games between the Islanders and Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo, Chicago and St. Louis," Torrey says. "We need conference identities based on geographic lines, and plenty of games between conference rivals. Familiarity helps breed rivalries, and rivalries attract fans." Divisional rivals meet six times now, but next season this may be increased to 10 or 12. The old "I won't give up one home date with Montreal" argument no longer makes much sense, not when the Canadiens draw only 8,104 in Minnesota, as they did earlier this month.
"But first of all," Campbell says, "we've got to ride out the storm."
Campbell says NHL players get too big a slice.