March 1, 2010

Will we see NHL players in 2014 Winter Games?

So now what?

With Canada’s 3-2 thrilling overtime victory over the U.S. in the men’s gold-medal hockey game just a few hours in the books, where does hockey fit in for the next Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia?

Yes, the sport will be on display in Sochi in 2014. But there are no guarantees that the NHL players who made the Games in Vancouver so compelling will be on the ice again in four years.

The issue, as always, is about money and control. In the case of Vancouver, the IOC, the IIHF and NBC have it; the NHL doesn’t, but wants some share of both.

"We bring in 140-plus players and we participate in the Olympics by stopping our season for two weeks, but this is the IOC's show, the broadcasters' show and the IIHF's show,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “There are a lot of things we don't have control over and going forward, it may be we need to be a little more involved than at least to this point we've been allowed to be."

Part of what Bettman will try to leverage for 2014 is an enhanced licensing deal to promote its players, as well as allowing the NHL and its properties more access to its players at the Olympic Games. All of which makes sense from a league standpoint, but if it ends up keeping NHL players out of the Olympics, it would lose something much bigger: exposure and a marketing platform the league cannot equal on its own.

The NHL has suffered in the past for winning the smaller battle (upfront money for its TV rights) and losing the larger war (less exposure on Versus). League properties have to be vigilant about not falling behind in keeping their sports relevant and reaching new generations.
For all its laudable efforts to boost its online presence and utilize social media, the NHL is still chasing from behind because of its television contract. Worldwide exposure to its star players can only help the league, be it now, or down the road.

Bettman has not been coy about using the participation of his league’s best players as his bargaining chip.

"This costs us money. If it were just for business, we wouldn't be here,” Bettman said. “This disrupts our season. We don't make any money off it. We're here because it's good for the game. The value of the contracts of the NHL players that are participating in this tournament is $2.1 billion.”

While Sunday’s gold-medal game drew record numbers for NBC, Bettman is under no illusion there will be any significant bounce for his league.

The NHL's television contract is with Versus, which is not available on any number of basic cable outlets. It’s also not currently available on DirecTV - much to my personal chagrin - as the two continue to spar without a contract in place.

As much as the Olympics need the NHL’s best players -- its hockey tournament without them would plummet in interest -- the NHL needs the worldwide stage of the Olympics if the league hopes to grow.

Neither the IOC nor the NHL will be in a rush to finalize discussions.

The NHL still has to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with its players - the CBA expires after the 2010-11 season - and the IOC still has to negotiate the U.S. television rights.

Regardless of how long it takes, it’s a deal both sides need to make.

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