According to the NHL, this upcoming season will be the first season since 2007 to not have preseason games in Europe. The reason for this change stems from the logistics associated with the NHL’s expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The CBA remains in effect until September 15, 2012 which is right at the beginning of when the preseason should start.
Sports Business Journal wrote this week, “Sources said that the NHL was ‘willing to schedule them, but an agreement couldn’t be reached with the NHLPA over how cancellation costs would be handled in the event of a work stoppage.'” So, because of a potential lockout teams can’t promote the sport to fans abroad? In my opinion, this is a horrible situation for the NHL. Deals need to be worked out, but the importance of these games is clearly being overlooked. At the NHL GM meeting, GMs accepted that games could not be scheduled and the CBA could be tabled. Instead they should have scheduled the games, and cut their losses if cancellations occurred (which they most likely wouldn’t anyway). The GMs also could have taken a look at the CBA to try to figure it out before the summer ends. Commissioner Gary Bettman actually said he doesn’t know when talks about the CBA will start, “Ask the union. We’ve been ready. But I’m not concerned. There’s lots of time.” Sure, lots of time, but at the expense of the European preseason.
I recently went to London and met with executives from both NFL UK and NBA International. Both the NFL and the NBA are doing everything in their power to grow their brands in Europe and get an increasingly International fan base. The NBA is doing pretty well, because basketball is such a global sport. They are growing on a grassroots level, and utilizing social media to gain fans. The NFL faces challenges from rugby fans who doubt the amount of padding used, but the the NFL is still bringing an American football game to London each year. They also are attempting to bring an NFL team to the UK for good. On the other hand, NHL games aren’t even played on TV in England. There is no deal with the networks that allow for them to be played. (Sidenote: this is not the case everywhere in Europe, it varies by country). In the UK they play AHL hockey games on TV. Do you really expect to get new hockey fans from watching the AHL?
The NHL needs to get into the arena of global sports. It is exciting, it is not like anything else (no competition like football has with rugby or baseball has with cricket), and it has prominence in countries spanning the globe (US, Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden…etc). But the first step to attaining this goal was to grow the NHL fan-base in countries that already have a love of hockey. NHL players need to get into their arenas, interact with their fans, and boost the NHL brand. Without these pre-season games, it is a huge step back for the NHL and for global hockey.