The NHL's beef with the Olympics, explained
Answers to some frequently asked questions
Following Monday's announcement by the NHL indicating it will not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, it's a good time to review the key points that factored into this decision.
Here's the NHL's dispute with the International Olympic Committee, explained:
What does the NHL want?
For starters, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the 31 team owners have made it clear from the beginning that they're not interested in paying the costs of travel, accommodations and insurance for their top players to compete in the Olympics.
Those bills, estimated at somewhere around $20 million US for the 2018 Olympics, had been covered by the IOC for previous Games. But, sometime after taking office in the fall of 2013, IOC president Thomas Bach put an end to that arrangement.
Enter the International Ice Hockey Federation. Hockey's world governing body offered back in November to cover those costs.
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Problem solved, right? Not so fast. Reports then surfaced that the IIHF's offer wasn't good enough for the NHL, which was seeking something akin to "top sponsor" status with the IOC. Such a deal would give the league additional marketing considerations and the use of certain Olympic content on its own platforms.
What does the NHL really want?
It seems like the NHL's real beef may be with giving its "partners" anything for free — a stance that hockey fans and players are familiar with after enduring three lockouts, including a stoppage that wiped out an entire season, under Bettman's reign.
In making its various demands, the NHL has pounded the talking point that putting its season on hold for 2½ weeks in February is a major concession, and one that "the overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to," according to Monday's statement.
It's debatable, though, how much of this is really a hardship. Interest in the interminable regular season can often wane during the dog days of February, and the owners aren't sacrificing any games — each team still plays 82 times during an Olympic season.
What does the IOC want?
Bach's organization — which bills itself as a "not-for-profit" "movement" and yet still rakes in billions in sponsorship and media-rights revenue for every Games — wants to continue having the world's best hockey players perform on its stage for free.
The IOC also objects to the idea of giving special treatment to the NHL. In its statement issued in response to the NHL's decision to pull out of Pyeongchang, the IOC noted that it "distributes 90 per cent of its revenue for the development of sport in the world" and that it "obviously cannot treat a national commercial league better than not-for-profit international sports federations which are developing sport globally."
According to the NHL, the IOC also told the league that its participation in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing — the capital of a massive Chinese market that all pro sports leagues want to tap into — is contingent on its going to Pyeongchang.
What do NHL players want?
In short, to play in the Olympics. As the dispute has played out over the last few months, many players expressed their fondness for representing their country. Russia's Alex Ovechkin, one of hockey's biggest stars, continues to insist that he will play in Pyeongchang regardless of the NHL's decision. His boss, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, has indicated he would be open to accommodating Ovechkin's request, though it's unclear how such an arrangement would work.
The players' desire to be Olympians, though, doesn't mean they're willing to capitulate to their bosses. The players' union in November swiftly rejected the league's offer to let them compete in Pyeongchang in exchange for a three-year extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which has been very good so far to the bottom line for owners. The proposed quid pro quo was viewed by some as a blunt attempt by the NHL to turn public opinion against the players.
Is the NHL's decision final?
Maybe. The NHL's statement on Monday contains some interesting language. While it ends with a final-sounding sentence ("We now consider the matter officially closed.") nowhere does it actually say that the NHL has definitively decided to skip the 2018 Olympics. Instead, it contains the less-ominous line of "this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 regular season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games."
Was that just an oversight? Or a signal that the door remains (ever so slightly) ajar for further negotiations?
It doesn't look good at the moment, but we'll see.