Striking the League vs. Team Profitability Balance in the NHL

The NHL is a consortium of individual teams. Each franchise operates with their own ownership and P&L. Thus each franchise tries to maximize their economic return individually, while working in association with the rest of the league as it relates to the players union and other league-wide agreements.

The following graphic shows the core of the fundamental issue between the NHLPA and the NHL. While the league overall makes about $126M and 4.1% operating income which is okay, but not great compared to where they could/should be. However, at the team level, it is nowhere nearly as pretty a picture. As you can see, over two-thirds of the teams are struggling to turn a profit.

Source: Forbes

At the NHL Players Association, it makes sense for them to take a position which puts the onus of finding a solution to this imbalance on the owners and suggest they find new revenue sharing levers amongst themselves. This is why the NHLPA’s counter-proposal had some merit. It suggested that the overall league would become more profitable by allowing revenue growth to outpace player salary growth, thus increasing league-wide margin. As well, they proposed several ideas about how to allow for teams to shift revenue from profitable to unprofitable teams using performance-related financial instruments.

On the other side, from the league and owners perspective, they are trying to make each franchise successful and profitable on their own merits – while maintaining competitive balance with a hard salary cap.

So who is right?  Where should the line be drawn for overall league profitability (which it is now) and having the majority of teams being profitable (which they are not)?  Removing salary cap restrictions could allow each team to operate profitably, but would remove competitive balance – this option would be more like Major League Baseball and is in line with the NHLPA’s proposals. But the NHL wants all three: league profitability, team profitability AND competitive balance. In order for the NHL and NHLPA to come to an agreement they will need to find a compromise on where this balance is struck.

What would healthy economics look like for a typical NHL team?

Now that we have looked at the overall league economics and the two ends of the financial spectrum between the Top 5 and Bottom 5 revenue teams, we really need to focus on the teams in the middle.

In portfolio management there are always ‘stars’ and ‘dogs’ but it is the fat middle of teams that really matter.  In fact, if you follow the GE/Jack Welch’s low-producing team mantra, the bottom teams are problems that need to be fixed by ownership/management and are not really an issue for the players to solve.

So now, let’s focus on the teams that represent the core of the National Hockey League, the 20 teams in the fat middle. We will refer to them as the “Middle 20”. If the “Middle 20” are not financially healthy given the economic business model that should be associated with a sports league like the NHL, then it makes sense to question the cost structure of the league.

As you can see, even though the salary cap is set at 57% across the entire league, for the ”Middle 20” teams are paying 63% of revenues in salary.  And with operating costs estimated to be $37.5 M by our analysis, the average “Middle 20” team is at best breaking even and more likely than not losing money.

So what should the cost structure look like?

Once again we will ignore the Top 5 and Bottom 5 teams and focus on the “Middle 20”. As discussed previously, it should not be unreasonable for these “Middle 20” teams to earn 8-12% operating income. Therefore, a sustainable cost structure could look like this (note this uses 2012 numbers and does not adjust for projected growth in 2012-13):

2011-12 “Middle 20” Economics to get to 8-12% Margins


We are not recommending any specific numbers, just showing a range on how the numbers could work to get to the 8-12% range.  If you take the median salary revenue share number of 51% for the “Middle 20” that would make a $49M salary cap hit for these teams. Currently the Top 5 teams spend ~8% more than the “Middle 20”. Assuming the top teams are at the salary cap ceiling, this would make the ceiling at $53M.  If you then extrapolate across the league, where you have 30 teams with an average salary cap hit of about $50M you get an effective revenue share rate of about 48.4%.  This overall number appears to be somewhat similar to the owners first proposal and may follow some of their rationale. Either way, it is clear the current 57% rate does not appear to be a reasonable rate.

As with any business, ownership must look across all economic levers (both costs and revenue) to improve profitability, so cost savings can clearly be found both in salaries and operating costs. Given that most of these costs are variable in the shorter term it is not unreasonable for  each cost center to contribute to finding some savings so that the burden is shared across all parties.


NHL Team by Team Economics

Now that we have looked at the general economics of the NHL as an entertainment /sports league compared to similarly structured industries, it is important to review the economics of individual teams (aka markets). Not all teams are created equal in the NHL portfolio and as a results there will always be ‘stars’ and ‘dogs’ and everything in between.

While the following data may or may not be exactly right, the over numbers do add up and certainly provide an excellent framing of the issues that are being discussed about big market vs.  small market teams. The following data is from ForbesCap Geek, our own analysis and leverages some additional operating cost details from the 2004 Levitt Report (adjusted for 2012 numbers).


Clearly there is a massive different between the Top 5 revenue teams are the Bottom 5 by basically a factor of more than 2:1 in aggregate.  This disproportionate sizing significantly affects smaller revenue teams since the salary cap is a factor of overall league revenues, so in effect as the big markets grow, the smaller markets must disproportionately spend a greater percent of their revenues on player salary just to remain competitive. The following table compares big difference in player salary as a percent or revenue at the two ends of the spectrum:

So what does this mean?  Large revenue teams have huge margins, but small revenue teams are going to struggle to break even because their operating costs need to be less than 33% of costs.

Based on our analysis and extrapolating data from the Levitt report, we estimate the average operating costs for a team is about $38.5M per year (and of course varies by team/market).  But at roughly those fixed costs, it is nearly impossible for small revenue teams to breakeven without changes to their cost structure.

This might be obvious to many people, but seeing the actual numbers and how many teams are affected by the overall average salary cap because of the disproportionate size of the Top 5 teams makes it a little more concrete how big the issue is.

How much profit should an NHL team make?

This is one of the fundamental questions at the heart of what is driving the NHL owners position as it relates to the CBA being negotiated. Now clearly any owner can decide they want to lose money with their team and spend money on anything they want in order ensure they aren’t profitable.  However, as mentioned in the previous post, the rational behavior is trying to balance the NHL owners’ conundrum which includes trying to maximize profit while trying to win a Stanley Cup.

So in order to examine what is a reasonable profit expectation for an NHL team one must first look at the business model of professional hockey. In particular the economics of what drives revenue, the cost structure of the league and how the economics compare to similar types of industries.

Professional hockey has an enviable revenue model; it has multiple stream of revenue and is not dependant on any single one. While the NHL receives a significant portion of revenue from ticket sales (much of which can be considered a subscription service since there is such a high season ticket renewal  rate by most teams), they all so receive television (a function of advertising, cable subscriptions) revenue, licensing and on-site revenues (parking, concessions etc.).  This many revenue streams for a single product is the envy of many entertainment and media related properties. Clearly revenue is a function of overall popularity of hockey as a sport, individual team success and appeal of individual star players along with other lesser factors. Given the growth of the NHL over the last seven years, revenue growth has not been a significant issue.

The NHL is in the entertainment business.  It has more of a cost structure associated with a fixed cost to put a team on the ice.  The primary costs are of course player salaries, arena costs and team operations. Additional details of the NHL costs can be found in the Levitt Report.  Now the most important element in the economic model of the NHL is to understand that the incremental (marginal) cost of selling another ticket or having another TV viewer is negligible and is essentially zero. This is very similar to selling another movie ticket or another copy of Microsoft Office.  Similarly, the cost of delivering the ‘content’ (movie production costs, software development costs or player salaries) must be managed to an overall Profit and Loss (P&L) statement.  These costs are essentially budgeted (or ‘fixed’ for a set period of time) in order to ensure they align with the overall P&L.

So why does this matter? Well it matters for two reasons. First, because that means in order to make a profit, rational NHL owners should be managing their player costs in relation to their revenue on an annual basis (the budgeting period for hockey). Secondly, given the type of economic structure of the NHL there is no reason that NHL teams shouldn’t be able to generate profits similar to other companies in industries that would be considered ‘peer groups’.  In the Fortune 500 there are three such industries: Entertainment, Internet Services and Computer Software.  Each of them has some significant fixed development costs in order deliver their offering, but low/negligible marginal costs. Specific companies include Disney, eBay and Symantec. While the economics of each industry and company are unique, it is not unreasonable to see profit margins anywhere from 8-20+%.  Similarly, the economics for any one team will vary great across the league based on market and team dynamics (i.e. there will be a portfolio of over-performing teams and under-performing ones), but in general for the typical NHL team it should very reasonable to expect to generate 8-12% operating income.

The NHL Owners Conundrum

In business, the challenge for every CEO of an established company is trying to balance the needs of three stakeholders:  Customers, Employees and Shareholders.  Each stakeholder is competing for more of what the company has to offer, whether it is a lower price (customer), higher wages (employees) or better earnings (shareholders).  A CEOs job is to continually make tradeoffs between these parties and strike the balance needed to keep the company healthy and growing.

In hockey, NHL owners are also trying to find the balance between three (somewhat) competing forces which at times seem contradictory.  The first two are pretty clear, which is 1) to make a profit and 2) to win a Stanley Cup.  However, each item does not exist in a vacuum. They belong to bigger eco-system which is the National Hockey League, and collectively the league is bigger than any individual team, and what is best for the league is a level playing field which gives each team the option of competing equally with other teams. So the third factor NHL owners try to manage overall is 3) Competitive balance.  Thanks to the salary cap initiated in 2005, the league has successfully seen a lot more parity than ever before with different teams winning the Stanley Cup and so many teams competing for a playoff spot up until then end of the season.

In upcoming posts we will explore how striking the balance of these three factors is very challenging for NHL owners under the current (expired) CBA because they must optimize for one or two at the expense of the third.  In particular, for many teams in order to remain competitive and take a serious run at a Stanley Cup it will be at the expense of profitability.  It is important to dive into the economic structure of individual teams in order to fully appreciate what makes striking this balance such a conundrum for owners.