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

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.

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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)