Reuters reported on Wednesday in an “exclusive” that the International Ice Hockey Federation “has agreed to pay NHL players’ travel and insurance costs to try to lure them to the 2018 Winter Olympics but team owners have set more commercial demands.”
This is going to be one of those things where people casually following the NHL vs. IOC story see this as a major hurdle that been overcome en route to a settlement. But if you’ve been following it, this has been common knowledge for months: That the IIHF was going to fill in the funding gap created when the IOC decided to roll back its funding of the NHL players at the Olympics.
What the NHL didn’t like, initially, was the idea that the IIHF would scrape that money from the member nations and their hockey development funds. But that aside, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said at the NHL All-Star Game in January that covering costs as they’ve been covered in the past wasn’t necessarily enough.
“I’ve never said that just raising the money was the issue,” Bettman said. “What I think has happened is that there were some owners, over time, who probably though the Olympics were a good idea. There were some that always hated it. And then there were some clubs that didn’t give it much thought until the IOC said they’re not going to pay the expenses. And that’s when they said, ‘wait a minute why are we knocking ourselves out [to go]?”
What the NHL wants is a “game-changer,” according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “I don’t know what that ‘something’ is, that we can bring to the Board of Governors,” he said. “If there was a compelling reason that we could bring to the Board, we would present it to them.”
Now, this game-changer could come internally, in the form of the NHLPA extending the CBA, although Donald Fehr recently said the players weren’t going to come to the table over the Olympics.
But more likely, the “game-changer” arrives from the IOC.
Here’s the real dance between the NHL and the IOC, as a late April IIHF-instituted “deadline” nears: What can the NHL get from the IOC as far as making money from sending its products (i.e. “the talent”) to the Olympics, and what is the IOC willing to give up, given that it’ll have to do the same for every other professional sports league lending its athletes to the Games?
“Obviously, this time the owners of the NHL clubs are putting more commercial conditions to the IOC and the Olympic movement,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, via Reuters. “The IOC has been informed the talks between the International Federation and the NHL are continuing. The IOC knows that the NHL understands that the Olympic movement cannot treat the owners of a commercial franchise of a national league better than an international sports federation or other professional leagues with regard to the Olympic Games.”
In 2014, the fight was over NHL access to highlights and content. That fight continues, although the NBC partnership helped the NHL make inroads here.
The fight’s always been over how the NHL can use the IOC’s trademarks and intellectual property in conjunction with promoting the League’s participation in the Olympics.
Or, in simpler terms, how the NHL can profit from a shared branding of the hockey tournament, i.e. to sell Alex Ovechkin Team Russia gear in the NHL Store, for example. That fight continues.
From John Shannon of Sportsnet, a couple of other points:
* Have the IOC actually “buy” some home dates from all NHL teams, so the league could reduce the season by a game or two and give teams cash in return.
* Get consent from the IOC to call the NHL an official supplier or sponsor, which would give the league an opportunity to brand content with its own shield and the Olympic rings. That value would certainly have benefits for the NHL.
The first note seems insane from a precedent-setting standpoint, but remember where the owners’ heads are on this: “Quite frankly, we don’t see what the benefit is from a League standpoint to Olympics participation,” said Daly, speaking for the owners.
So having the IOC “buy” games is a direct benefit to the teams.
The second point speaks directly to the aforementioned marketing and gear sales the NHL currently misses out on. And, frankly, it’s here that we’ve always supported Bettman and the League: They develop the stars, loan them for free to the Olympics for a few weeks, watch as the IOC profits from their stars and get absolutely no direct financial benefit from it.
And don’t give me “but people know who T.J. Oshie and Ryan Miller are!” We’re talking hard numbers and real dollars; not illusory benefits.
So it’s great that the IIHF is picking up the funding from the IOC. That helps. But unless this is all smoke from the NHL and its owners for the last two years, it’s still going to take more “commercial demands” satisfied by the IOC to get the players to Pyeongchang.
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