The NHL will lose more than a billion dollars by staging the 2020-21 season in largely empty arenas, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday, but owners and players are intent on playing a 56-game schedule to provide diversion for fans and keep hockey on the sports map.
The delayed and shortened season, scheduled to begin Wednesday, already has been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Dallas Stars, who had six players and two staff members test positive for COVID-19, won’t play their first game before Jan. 19. In addition, the San Jose Sharks are expected to learn Tuesday whether Santa Clara County, California, health restrictions that caused them to move their training camp to Arizona will be modified to permit them to play home games at SAP Center.
“We’re going to run through more money, or say it differently, lose more money at the club level and at the league level by playing than by not playing,” Bettman said during a webinar. “But the owners unanimously are OK with that because they know how important it is for our fans and for the game.
“The magnitude of the loss, when you add it all up, starts with a ‘b’. We’re out of the ‘m’ range and into the ‘b’ range. That’s just what we have to deal with and that’s what the clubs have decided they’re prepared to do. Even though it would be a smaller number if we just shut down for a year, everybody thought it was important, as one of the four major sports, for us to take our role and play our game and deliver what people expect from us.”
According to Forbes, revenues for the 2019-20 season — which was paused on March 12 with about 85% of the regular season done and was completed in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto — were $4.4 billion. Revenues were $5.09 billion for the 2018-19 season.
Bettman said revenues generated directly or indirectly by fans — including ticket sales, suite sales, parking and concessions — comprise about 50% of NHL revenues.
“All of our teams have the ability to get through this,” he said. “We’ve made some financial arrangements that make sure a cash flow is what it needs to be, although that’s not found money, that’s debt, and our clubs, our owners, are having to write checks.”
Only the Stars, Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers have approval to admit fans to start the season. Pittsburgh and Columbus might soon get approval. In each case attendance will be limited to about 3,500.
“I don’t think any of this allowing fans in buildings is really financially driven at all,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “It’s really to connect and engage with your fan base should you have the ability to do it in person.”
To minimize the risks of contracting the virus, the NHL realigned its 31 teams into four geography-based divisions and grouped all seven Canada-based franchises. Players will be tested frequently and have been told to limit their movement to their home, rink and practice facility and to not leave hotel rooms while on the road. Playing this season in a bubble, as was done for the 2019-20 Stanley Cup playoffs, wasn’t considered because Bettman said it would have been unreasonable to ask players to be away from their families for six months.
He said no threshold has been established for the number of positive tests or players unavailable that would trigger postponement of a game.
“We’re going to have to be in a position to understand and address situations as they occur,” he said. “Having a series of just hard and fast rules in this environment, I’m pretty sure is not going to be the best approach.”
In addition, Bettman announced two outdoor games will be played at Lake Tahoe, with the Vegas Golden Knights facing the Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 20 and the Boston Bruins facing the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 21. Bettman said the NHL’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18 will include honoring Willie O’Ree, who became the league’s first Black player on Jan. 18, 1958. Teams will wear helmet decals bearing O’Ree’s likeness.