Monday, November 09, 2009

Rumour: Balsille to Create Rival League(s)

Is it possible that Canadian billionaire and hockey enthusiast, Jim Balsillle, is seriously considering either forming, or joining and backing, a hockey league that will rival the NHL?

Jim Balsille has been spurned three times by the NHL for trying to buy franchises and relocate them to Southern Ontario, first in Pittsburgh, then in Nashville, and finally and most bitterly, in Phoenix.

With the financial clout of multi billion dollar RIM behind him, and Balsille's obvious desire to own a hockey franchise, does he have the will to carry this through? If he does, it might spell serious trouble for the NHL.

One source outlined some juicy pieces of hearsay about the rival league, and suggested that its likely form will include interconnected leagues to build off a system widely used throughout Europe.

This means that teams will be able to play up and play down from the top league. Essentially, a last place team in the premier league will drop down to a feeder league, while a first place team in the feeder league could move up to the premier league. This could go several layers deep. In European soccer, for instance, there are more than six divisions.

Such a setup makes sense for a guy like Balsille, who like the millions of hockey fans and players throughout North America and the world, never made it to the spotlight in their teens, but retained romantic notions of moving their way up through leagues to make it into the spotlight. A guy with some talent and determination in a city leauge could be fighting his way up to fourth, to third, to second division teams. It could also bring higher level hockey to cities throughout North America and Europe and add a mythical quality to teams who push their way up the ranks to get noticed and make it to the NHL. Furthermore, it could be a proving grounds for young coaches and trainers hoping to get noticed by creating something from nothing.

The rumoured new leagues would include teams in both North America and Europe. Possible European cities include St Petersburg and Moscow in Russia, Stockholm in Sweden, Helsinki in Finland, Prague in Czech Republic, and with the possibility of expansion into Belarus, France, Switzerland, Germany, and England.

In North America, markets in Southern Ontario, Quebec City, Winnipeg, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington and Montreal make sense, with the possibility of expansion into Western Canada and one or two other US markets.

The league, which is still very much a rumour, would likely offer higher salaries than the current, salary cap limited NHL, particularly to upcoming talent in order to woo them away from the National Hockey League.

It's not hard to see just where the speculative new leagues could exploit weaknesses in the NHL system:

Firstly, NHL rookie salaries are limited to $900,000, and with almost half of the NHL's teams losing money last year, and with a rival league eating into revenues further, a stronger, financially backed league could offer higher startup salaries to top young talent. They could also poach any star not under contract and offer them ten million or more per season, matching their true worth, while NHL teams would battle to fit players under the salary cap.

Another factor favouring a start up league could be that players could be woed into playing in front of their hometown/provinces/country crowds. The upside of an NHL player signing with a team from his country or own province/state of origin would not only be a higher salary, but also better sponsor income via local businesses would certainly enhance a player's earning power. Teams too would strengthen drawing power with hometown heroes.

As good as it sounds, there are definite hurdles for a new rival league. Primarily, the NHL has a strong brand and player loyalty, and cracking that would be challenging. The new league would feel the pinch, especially in the early going when players are locked in contracts to NHL franchises. The barrier of NHL players having a preference for the NHL brand and being wary of breaking away from the NHL is also formidable.

Here's a list of free agents for the upcoming 2010 season.

A few big names include Patrick Kane, Robert Luongo, Kovalchuck, Rick Nash, Nabakov, Jokinen, Toews, Cam Ward and Selanne.

That's where marketing could be key, and starting soon. If the new league could put the idea into the players, and the fans minds that "A better paying, more dynamic, exciting product is coming, and instead of Phoenix vs Florida, Nashville vs Columbus, and Tampa vs Atlanta, we could be playing Moscow vs New York, Sweden vs Toronto, Paris vs Montreal, etc. Just like a new political leader might rejuvinate a party, a new league might reinvigorate disenfranchised hockey fans who are tired of the NHL song and dance.

It's been suggested that the league could eventually open up to a mid season tournament like soccer's FA cup in England, where minnows, lower division teams who qualify, can turn giant killers and upset top level teams. Such a tournament could raise the status of local teams, such as a team from Halifax, Regina or Kingston, and broaden the fan base for the sport in non-traditional markets such as Phoenix and Nashville where slow but steady success and exposure could eventually create a fan base to support a competitive team at the top level.

Truth or rumour? Time will tell.

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