- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league and its clubs will lose billions of dollars to stage an abridged 2021 season largely without fans, but he felt it was critical to play through the pandemic anyway.
“Let me make something really clear: We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people — particularly in isolation, or where there are curfews — a sense of normalcy and something to do,” Bettman told reporters in a video call on Monday. “It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play. We’re going to lose more money, at the club level and the league level, by playing than by not playing.”
Regarding the losses, Bettman said: “The magnitude of the loss starts with a B. We’re out of the M range and into the B.”
ESPN previously reported that several owners had told Bettman this fall that they would prefer to sit out the season if they were going to take significant losses, but the commissioner convinced the skeptics that the league couldn’t afford to be out of sight and out of mind — especially with Seattle joining as the league’s 32nd team in 2021-22, the same season the league begins a new U.S. television deal. The league has helped several teams with cash flow, although Bettman stressed that it’s not “found money” but rather loans that would need to be paid back.
“While there is an economic consequence to playing the season, all of our owners and our clubs are in position to weather it and we have no concerns in that regard,” Bettman said on Monday. “Except that everyone is going to lose a lot of money to do this.”
The NHL drops the puck on Wednesday for a 56-game regular season featuring all-divisional play to reduce travel. As of now, only three teams — the Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes — will open the season with a limited capacity of fans. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins hope to allow some fans soon. The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning announced on Saturday that they won’t welcome fans until at least Feb. 5 because coronavirus cases in the area have “risen sharply.”
Bettman said that gate revenue generated directly and indirectly at games accounts for roughly 50% of league revenue. The league has looked at creative ways to recoup revenue, including selling naming rights to its division names for the first time and allowing teams to put advertising stickers on helmets.
“The jury is still out on jersey signage,” Bettman said. “And if we are going to do that, that was something that was important enough that I didn’t want to do it under these circumstances. Nobody should jump to any conclusions, in terms of what’s next.”
There have already been hurdles ahead of the season, with the defending Western Conference champion Dallas Stars shutting down their training camp this week due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The league delayed Dallas’ start date until at least Jan. 19.
Daly said that the league is “still trying to get our arms around how the spread occurred.” Medical officials are scheduled to meet on Monday night and determine when the Stars can reopen their facility. Daly said the Stars will be able to play when they can put a competitive team on the ice “without jeopardizing the health and safety of players.”
The San Jose Sharks — who held training camp in Arizona and are on the road until February — are meeting with Santa Clara County (California) officials on Tuesday to determine if they can play games in San Jose this season.
Bettman said the league has been in constant communication with other leagues, such as the NBA, which has already started its season, about best practices and medical protocols.
Bettman reiterated that NHL players and staffers would not jump in front of the line for COVID-19 vaccines, but “if there’s an alternate source that, at the appropriate time, we could buy,” the league would look into it.
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