For fans of international hockey, last June brought some exciting news: the IIHF had decided to give the Champions Hockey League another go. The CHL would give the best club teams in Europe a chance to compete against each other in front of an international audience. From the press release:
The planned re-launch will include 16 teams divided into four groups, with fourteen clubs (national champion + regular season winner) coming from the seven top-ranked European countries; Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland.
Team 15 and 16 will be the 2011 Continental Cup winner and the defending 2009 Champions Hockey League winner (ZSC Lions Zurich) respectively.
The tournament was essentially a European champions playoff, and fans would get plenty of opportunities to see the best of the best. From the press release again:
The format foresees a total of 62 games, including a preliminary-group double round-robin, and home-and-away quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals. The opening day is September 7, 2011, with the finals scheduled for January 18 and 25, 2012.
The IIHF will provide financing and personnel resources for the implementation of the Champions Hockey League, thus committing to an excess of CHF 1.5 million per year to cover the expenses for league administration and game and league operation.
An international tournament featuring the best non-NHL teams and players competing for the Silver Stone Trophy couldn't lose. Actually, it could. In February, the IIHF announced the shelving of their plans:
the IIHF Council discussed the replies from Europe’s top-8 leagues with regards to the IIHF’s original proposal (from January 20, 2011) to re-launch the Champions Hockey League for the 2011-2012 season. The deadline for league responses was February 17.
As the majority of the leagues were not in favour of accepting the IIHF’s offer for a re-launch for the 2011-2012 season, the Council decided to postpone the Champions Hockey League plans.
It was a blow to international hockey and the long-term growth of the game. With proper management and media coverage, the CHL would raise the profile of all of the European leagues, the Kontinental Hockey League, SM-liiga, Czech Extraliga, Elitserien, Slovak Extraliga, National League A, Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Belarusian Hockey League, Latvian Hockey League, Oddset Ligaen, Austrian Hockey League, Kazakhstani Championship, Elite Ice Hockey League, GET-ligaen, Ligue Magnus, Slovenian Hockey League, Serie A, OB I bajnokság, Polska Liga Hokejowa, Eredivisie, Ukrainian Major League, and Liga Nationala de hochei all benefit from increased attendance, television exposure and play against other leagues.
When originally conceived, there was enough media interest that the North American television rights were sold, to NBC Universal in the United States and The Score in Canada. While The Score and Versus wouldn't be the ideal vehicles for such a tournament, they would allow the CHL to access the fervent Canadian and Northern North American hockey markets. The NHL always has a significant number of drafted prospects playing in Europe and with some advertising help by teams in their local markets, the NHL could create a buzz around the tournament.
Why would a league struggling to increase television ratings in its home market help advertise a competing league with a four-month regular season overlap? The simple answer is the worldwide growth of the game. Time zones mean CHL games would take place between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. locally in North America and would not compete with North American hockey of any level. The tournament ends in the final week of January, well before NBC takes to the air with their weekend games of the week, typically aired at Noon EST or 3 p.m. EST. CHL games wouldn't be the most popular televised sporting event, but the ratings for the Spengler Cup, World Junior Championship and the World Championship proved that the CHL should beat Ram Hunting in Montana or the Saskatchewan Provincial Tractor Pull Championship or whatever else The Score and Versus are airing at the time.
Cracking the various European television markets would be left up to the IIHF, but a competitive, well-sponsored tournament like the CHL would be an excellent vehicle to use to bring hockey to the forefront in places like Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Norway and Poland.
Increasing the international appeal of the CHL brings additional revenue to the European leagues, and stabilizes and solidifies competition in those leagues, which makes those leagues more competitive and gives European clubs more resources to develop their own markets. The extra resources should help those leagues to develop more and better players, players who will eventually want to play in the NHL. Generating revenue for the CHL would only help the NHL in the long run. The CHL and every major European league wrap their playoff seasons just as the NHL playoff season ramps up. With more high profile players in the NHL, European interest should grow and revenue opportunities through television rights and apparel sales should increase with that growth.
Thanks to UEFA, we already know what sorts of revenues a sport with international appeal would generate by holding a club tournament each year:
Each of the 32 clubs taking part in the UEFA Champions League group stage that kicks off on Tuesday will receive a participation bonus of €3.9m, plus a match bonus of €550,000 per group game played. On top of that, the following performance bonuses will be paid: €800,000 for every win and €400,000 for every draw in the group stage.
There are additional payments made to the teams that progress in the competition with €3m the reward for advancing to the round of 16, €3.3m for reaching the quarter-finals and €4.2m for a semi-final place. The winners of the final at Wembley Stadium on 28 May will collect a further €9m, with €5.6m going to the runners-up.
By way of example, any side winning all six group games would earn €15m – comprising €12m for their group stage performance plus €3m for getting to the last 16.
In addition, participating clubs will be entitled to a share of the market pool based on the commercial value of their domestic television market, the number of UEFA Champions League matches they play this season and their final position in the domestic league table last term. They will also keep their UEFA Champions League gate receipts.
Obviously hockey is never going to have the worldwide appeal or revenues that football generates, but there is money to be made in a tournament like this, exposure to be gained and international growth to be recognized. If the IIHF is struggling to come up with the money to make the CHL appealing to the European leagues, the NHL should speak to any of their sponsors with a significant European presence including Honda, Subway, Enterprise, Reebok and Gatorade, and find a way to cover costs and provide additional revenues for the Champions Hockey League.