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A MATTER OF DOLLARS AND SENSE
Peter Gammons
November 29, 1976
The NHL owners went to Florida to party and sunbathe, but wound up trying to deal with the vexing problems that plague hockey: rising salaries, boring games, sagging attendance and the likely loss of several franchises
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November 29, 1976

A Matter Of Dollars And Sense

The NHL owners went to Florida to party and sunbathe, but wound up trying to deal with the vexing problems that plague hockey: rising salaries, boring games, sagging attendance and the likely loss of several franchises

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The NHL has tripled in size since 1967, salaries have shot up 533%, ticket prices doubled—and attendance is on the skids.

NOT MUCH CHANGE

1966

'67

'71

'72*

'73

'74

'75

'76

ATTENDANCE % of CAPACITY

98.5%

80%

88.5%

86%

85.5%

80%

75%

�70%

ONLY TEAMS

6

12

14

16

16

18

18

18

PLAYERS' % of GROSS RECEIPTS

25%

26%

22%

30%

34%

37%

44.5%

47.6%

AVERAGE PLAYER SALARY & BENEFITS

$18,000

$19,000

$20,000

$46,000

$70,000

$85,000

$95,866

$90,000

AVERAGE TICKET PRICE

$3.47

$4

$4.8

$5.1

$5.4

$6

$6.8

�$8.00

*RIVAL WHA COMMENCED OPERATIONS

Like the British economy and the city of New York, professional hockey is in deep trouble. The danger signs are everywhere: dwindling crowds, inflated salaries, too many boring games, microscopic television ratings and franchises tottering perilously close to bankruptcy. Indeed, the sick condition of the sport turned last week's annual "social" meeting of the NHL's Board of Governors at the Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo, Fla. into a serious business discussion dominated by one word: survival. No fishing. No tennis. No golf. No lounging in the sun.

"It used to be that we'd have these social meetings and if someone brought up problems or new ideas hardly anyone would even listen," says General Manager Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders. "But not this time. Everyone came prepared to sit down and discuss everything anyone had to say. I guess some people won't go to the dentist until the tooth's abscessed."

In the last 10 years the NHL has tripled in size from six teams to 18, and the WHA has added 12 more teams. During the same period (see chart) NHL player salaries have risen some 533%, and ticket prices have more than doubled. Teams that once allocated 23.9% of their gross income to players' contracts now must allot twice that. And the NHL, remember, is the only established major league without a lucrative television contract to sweeten the pot; NFL clubs, for instance, each receive more than $2.2 million per year from the networks.

While NHL operating costs have increased, attendance has begun to fall. "When we had just six teams," NHL President Clarence Campbell says, "we frequently played to better than 100% of capacity for a season." During the past two years NHL attendance dropped 10%—more than 1,200 paid admissions per game—and this season the decline is alarming.

Eleven of the NHL's 18 teams have not had even one sellout. The Boston Bruins, who had 117 straight sellouts during the early 1970s, have had only one capacity crowd: for the return of Bobby Orr, who, as it developed, did not return that night. Boston's season-ticket sales have also dropped by some 2,500.

The Chicago Black Hawks paid $3 million to Orr in the hope that he would pack their building and help secure a local television contract, but Chicago's attendance is down more than 1,200 per game—and the Hawks still do not have a TV outlet. The Minnesota North Stars have lost 5,000 fans per game the last two years, and recently needed a fresh $2.5 million stake to help stay afloat. St. Louis has dropped from 99.4% of capacity to 82.5% in the last two years. Both Cleveland and Colorado are drawing fewer people in their new hometowns than they attracted last season in Oakland and Kansas City, respectively; in fact, Cleveland supported its WHA team better than it has the Barons, and the people in Denver have been more enthused about the nightly giveaway of $5,000 in "Puck Bucks" than the play of the Rockies.

No-shows are another increasing concern. Vancouver has had as many as 2,500 empty seats for announced "sellouts," and recent crowds in Detroit, where a man was shot to death in the Olympia parking lot after a tennis match two weeks ago, have been less than half of the announced 8,000 to 10,000.

Three recent expansion franchises—Atlanta, Washington and the New York Islanders—have "modified their debt structure with the league," according to Campbell—meaning they are not currently making payments on their $6 million admission fees. In approving the move of Kansas City to Denver, the NHL wrote off $3.5 million of the club's franchise fee. "All things considered, it also cost us about $11 million for our experiences with a team in Oakland," Campbell says. The next instant disaster area may be in Atlanta, where the Flames—a respectable team on the ice—are woefully underfinanced and need an infusion of at least $3 million to survive the 1976-77 schedule.

The NHL owners intend to take a hard line on their lodge fellows who cannot pay their bills. "We want no more Oaklands," Campbell says. Indeed, as many as four NHL teams may not be in the league next year.

There will be changes, starting immediately, as the league tries to avoid a catastrophe. The haughty old NHL once ignored even basic public relations, but the struggling NHL will enter the marketplace. "We haven't done as much selling and marketing as we should have," says Otto Frenzel, one of the owners of the indigent Pittsburgh Penguins, "but we will—beginning this week—by putting a hard-line corporate approach into ticket and business operations."

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