Why Soccer Threatens the NHL

For years, the NHL has been the "fourth" pro sports league in the U.S. But as the hockey lockout continues, Major League Soccer may take its place

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Victor Decolongon / Getty Images
Victor Decolongon / Getty Images

Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy paces the ball against Jhon Kennedy Hurtado of the Seattle Sounders during Leg 1 of the Western Conference Championship at The Home Depot Center on Nov. 11, 2012 in Carson, Calif.

Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League crossed paths this week going in opposite directions.

Heading into Saturday’s championship game between the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS Commissioner Don Garber sounded victorious. The MLS set new attendance records and averaged nearly 19,000 fans a game this season, including 114 sellouts. The improving level of play, made possible by the addition of a new class of international talents such as Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry, has made the game more attractive for fans, who are embracing their teams. “There’s a true supporters culture that is developing in MLS that is providing us a true point of difference,” Garber said. And you can see in places like Seattle, where the games have a distinctly European feel. (Without the drunken louts and fan violence.) The league is strong enough that the pending loss of David Beckham, who since 2007 has single handedly provided MLS with an identity, can be considered a healthy transition.

Maybe NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman should hire Becks to juggle a ball wearing ice skates. It’s about the only entertainment his league might provide this season if it doesn’t end the current lockout of players, now in its third month. The players have offered a 50/50 revenue split with the owners, down from the 57% they are currently taking. The owners aren’t satisfied with sharing. Even two days of talks that included the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service failed to move the puck. “We are disappointed that the mediation process was not successful,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. Disappointed but he couldn’t have been surprised given the league’s intransigence.

(MORE: Why Liverpool Fans Are Loving Chelsea’s New Coach)

The NHL’s policy of exclusion—we’re not going to negotiate anything, and we don’t want to honor the player contracts that we’ve already signed—is a sports version of the Republican party. This is the second lockout that Bettman has orchestrated—the entire 2004-2005 season was lost on his watch. It’s a bitter holdout by what seems to be a few extreme owners bent on bringing the players to heel at the expense of the ticket-buying general public. We’ve seen what voters thought of the GOP‘s strategy. They reelected a left-handed basketball player.

Meanwhile in the north part of North America, the MLS added a team in the very heart of ice hockey this year, the Montreal Impact. It’s the third MLS team in Canada, and the new boys drew crowds of 60,000 plus at the Olympic Stadium before moving into the cozier confines of Stade Saputo. It sets up a potential new rivalry with Toronto FC, another relatively recent arrival to MLS, and one that could offset the historic Canadiens/Maple Leafs faceoff. (Although FC Toronto seems as lame as the Leafs have been over the last, oh, 30 years.) MLS is finding a deep fan base up north of the border, a contrast to the disappointment of the NHL’s southern strategy in planting teams in places such as Phoenix (bankrupt), Atlanta (moved), Tampa and Miami (quick, what’s the team’s name?). The growth of MLS in the U.S. and Canada, and the characteristics of the fan base say a lot about the future of the game. “The demographics don’t lie: our two countries have become soccer nations,” said Garber. Those same demographics—more Hispanic, less white— are a warning sign to the NHL, which apparently believes it can abuse its fans without consequences. MLS is growing because it has nurtured its fan base. It had to, given that MLS was essentially selling a foreign product in its early days. But that is no longer true. Global football is our ball.

So while soccer grows, the NHL is sliding. Many of the NHL’s stars are already playing in Europe, so the strike isn’t hurting them as much as perhaps the owners had hoped. Some of these players might choose to stay in Europe permanently—in other words, they’d prefer a Russian hockey league team owner to an American or Canadian — rather than worry about the NHL’s despots taking money out of their pockets.

So here’s a proposal to bring hockey back. NHL players should form their own league. (What is it that owners do, anyway?)There are plenty of arenas available, some publicly financed or owned. For instance, in the New York City area, there’s the Izod Center in nearby East Rutherford and the Barclay’s in Brooklyn, which don’t house NHL teams at the moment. In Detroit, the Palace at Auburn Hills is available, isn’t it? In Canada, there are a jillion places to place hockey.

Or better yet, consider that the NHL has had enormous success playing ice hockey outside in its Winter Classic. And MLS’s cozy, soccer specific stadiums, which typically seat 25,000 fans, all of them close to the action, would be perfect sites for outdoor hockey come December. The fans can wear team scarves (they might need to) and sing team songs, just like soccer fans do. The NHL would never be missed.

(MORE: Winter Classic Shutdown: Why It Will Hurt The NHL)

19 comments
smitty521
smitty521

I'm sorry, by suggesting that the TFC/Impact rivalry could someday eclipse that of the Habs/Leafs you have lost your right to speak about hockey, Canada, and rivalries. That is the most absurd suggestion I've ever heard. 

dcerv56335
dcerv56335

I dont understand how the players are paid in NHL. Could someone explain please?

AndrewWhitesell
AndrewWhitesell

The team that's in Miami (The Florida Panthers) are actually doing decently. They made the playoffs this past year, and I would think you would be hard pressed to find a true hockey fan that HASN'T heard of them. Similarly the Tampa Bay lightning have won a cup in 2003-2004. I would hardly call Washington DC a traditional hockey town, and they're doing really well, also, I wouldn't think hockey when I think Dalles, but they've also won Lord Stanley's cup. I'm not disagree with the fact that Garry Bettman has screwed the pooch on some of his moves, only objecting to the obvious hyperbole used to render the point. 

austins
austins

The Barclays will house the Islanders in 2015. If that makes any difference.

aahasbun
aahasbun

Even if NHL players are taking the split salary with owners, I'm pretty sure they're making more than 70% of MLS athletes.

wandmdave
wandmdave

@aahasbun While I'd love to disagree with you because I love my soccer and don't really follow hockey unless the Olympics are on, you're right.  I'm pretty sure the minimum salary in the NHL is 3 or 4 times the average salary for the MLS.  Pretty much only the designated players make normal top tier pro athlete money.  It is growing quickly though.

aahasbun
aahasbun

Definitely. I am an avid soccer fan as well and it does seem pretty sad that the wage differences between the MLS and other American professional sports leagues is that significant.

Sgc
Sgc

@aahasbun  MLS is still in the early stages of development, really. As a young league, they can get away with a lot in respect to their players that a nearly century-old league like the NHL couldn't.

I think it's a bad article in a lot of ways, one because it wasn't mentioned that MLS owners have gotten away with a more draconian labor policy from the very start than the one the NHL owners are trying to get to (you can be competitive in MLS spending far less than 50% of your revenue)-- but even more because the implied connection doesn't exist. Even if you believe MLS is on the rise (which I do), and even if you also believe the NHL (which I don't), the two are only very tangentially related, and the former is certainly not causing the latter.

PaulSmith
PaulSmith

I'm British. I live in England but am still a huge NHL fan and prefer hockey to soccer. I know lots of Canadians, mostly in the Toronto area. While they love hockey, they all prefer soccer. This year I have had to fall back on supporting Chelsea FC, but I will come back to the NHL. I just don't believe that everyone will, why bother when soccer offers actual matches (unlike the NHL), international competition (real ones, not token ones) and is so attractive to the young who can play it easily without a road trip and tuns of gear.

sabre23d
sabre23d

The MLS is a farce. I'm from Houston but I can't be a Dynamo for one reason: AEG owns the Galaxy and the Dynamo. David Beckham and Keane both make more money than the entire Houston roster combined because AEG wants to see Galaxy win. Basically, it's like if Steinbrenner owned the Mets & Yankees and they met in the World Series. Who do you think Steinbrenner would invest more in? The MLS is rigged for the small market team to play second fiddle.

sabre23d
sabre23d

Oh, and by "small market" team I am referring to Houston, the 4th largest city in the U.S but is treated as a small market because Kobe and Steve Nash don't attend our games. MLS is a joke.

Sgc
Sgc like.author.displayName 1 Like

@sabre23d You're missing a lot more than you have right here.

1) Houston and LA are the only 'co-owned' teams in the league. It is a legacy of a time when the league had to do things this way, and AEG (whose whole company is up for sale) is open to the concept of selling their interest in the Dynamo, and was negotiating with a bidder (Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander) but the talks broke down because the team is going up in value, and Alexander simply didn't offer enough.

2) AEG does not own Houston outright, it is an investor mostly for stadium purposes. Gabriel Brener and Oscar de la Hoya are co-investors, and Brener makes the executive decisions.

3) Houston has never spent much because until this season they did not have a stadium, and thus a big chunk of the rewards were going to a middle-man. They didn't lay out huge sums this year because doing so might have wrecked the chemistry of a team that its leaders thought was a contender to begin with. And they were more or less right--you're talking about a team that's made the Final twice in a row.  In fact, they've made the Final four times in seven years, and won twice.

DonnieCaterino
DonnieCaterino

I guess facts should be checked first!  I wish Pittsburgh would get an MLS team so I dont have to travel to Columbus to watch a live game.

CharlesBoyer
CharlesBoyer

Living in an NHL city, I can tell you from general experience that the lockout has instilled a sense of apathy towards the league.  It has gone from a topic in the nightly sports report to something mentioned...oh, every few days, maybe.  People generally just don't care.

On the other hand, the local sports Internet forums for other teams (college sports, which are very big here) have seen a definite rise in discussion of European futbol, with topics ranging from the UEFA Champions' league to the English Premiere League.  One EPL topic is particularly amusing: "which team should I adopt?" We're seeing Chelsea, Barca, ManUTD and Liverpool shirts worn in bars, with people planning to meet on the weekend to watch their new teams play.  

Granted, this is not a wildfire phenomenon by any means, not yet, but it goes to show that the sport is starting to capture the conscious of many typical American sporting fans.  That will likely only accelerate when NBC's acquisition of the EPL rights commences next year -- NBC will want to get its money's worth and futbol will be all over its properties with greater regularity than now.

So who needs ya, NHL?