The National Hockey League (NHL) in North America is by far the biggest and most well-known ice hockey competition on the planet.
The UK’s Premier competition, meanwhile, is the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), which is overshadowed by some of its fellow European top-flight leagues.
With disparities in popularity between the leagues of the transatlantic nations, and huge financial divides as a result. The leagues have many significant differences in key areas such as player recruitment, arena capacities and television broadcast deals.
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The differences in player earnings
When it comes to player recruitment in any ice hockey league, the most important factor is the salary package on offer. With the NHL being a globally followed league it can offer lucrative deals that amount to some of the highest earnings in the sports history.
Centre Nathan MacKinnon currently holds the title of the highest earner in the United States’ leading ice hockey competition. He earns around £13.6 million per season while on the books of the Colorado Avalanche.
MacKinnon’s team are one of the leading favourites to win the Stanley Cup this season, suggesting that their huge investment could be a worthwhile one. A range of betting sites in the UK currently predict the Avalanche as one of the most likely winners in the eventual off-season of 2023/24, talkSPORT BET, for example, offers the Colorado team at 17/2 to be the NHL champions.
Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) October 1, 2023
It’s extraordinary that NHL teams can dedicate enormous sums to single players in pursuit of titles, while teams in the EIHC would not challenge the likes of MacKinnon’s wage packet with their entire team’s earnings.
The average player wage in EIHL equates to around £34,000. This suggests that
the highest salary for a player in the UK league only amounts to a tiny fraction of the biggest contract in the NHL – the top earners in history may have penned contracts of around £50,000 per year. The level of finances that clubs have to utilise for player recruitment is simply in totally different stratospheres between the NHL and the EIHL.
The financial disparity is mainly due to the sport’s historical popularity in the US. It’s been going since the late 1800s in North America, which has allowed it to be firmly embedded into the sporting culture of the region.
Many people follow the sport due to tradition and long-held loyalties to certain clubs, this means there is a huge demand for large-capacity arenas and television broadcast deals.
The NHL is made up of teams based in the United States and Canada and the arenas from these nations dominate the rankings of the highest-capacity ice hockey stadiums around the world.
The list of the top 15 stadiums, in terms of the amount of spectators that they cater to, features 14 NHL venues. They all offer more than 18,000 seats, and the biggest NHL arena of all is the Bell Centre which is home to the Montreal Canadiens – it can host 21,105 fans.
The biggest stadium of any club in the EIHL, meanwhile, is the Odyssey Arena, which is home to the Belfast Giants, who have begun the new season impressively. It offers a maximum of 11,000 spectators the ability to watch the Giants play live each matchday. The arena in Northern Ireland is certainly of an impressive stature considering the sport’s lack of following in the UK compared to its cultural significance in the US’ mainstream sports scene.
Mark Brooks (@markbrooksy) September 30, 2020
If ice hockey continues to grow gradually in Britain and Northern Ireland, then eventually, we could perhaps see tens of thousands of fans taking in the action on the ice. However, for now, the demand for live ice hockey in the UK means that its stadiums can’t quite compare to the stunning venues in the US just yet.
This is where one of the biggest differences between the two professional leagues is showcased. The EIHL currently does not have a television broadcast deal in place. Viaplay decided not to renew their deal following the conclusion of the 2022/23 action. It’s extremely harmful to the league’s potential long-term growth, as long as the action cannot be followed on TV.
The NHL, however, has a massive broadcast deal in place. The league signed a seven-year deal with ESPN and TNT which began ahead of the 2021/22 season. It allows for 25 regular season games to be shown on TV and a further 75 to be streamed on ESPN+ and Hulu. The amounts paid for the rights between the two companies amount to around £515 million.
The EIHL and the NHL are ultimately on very different paths. The NHL is historically the biggest ice hockey league across the globe, and it is evidently making further strides financially via numerous avenues, which have allowed player salaries to reach a ridiculous high.
The EIHL possesses a tiny fraction of the NHL’s wealth, and its lack of a broadcasting partnership at present is likely to gatekeep any significant growth of the league across the UK and beyond.
There is no means by which the league looks set to improve financially in the coming times, and there will certainly be no funds for new custom-built stadiums or huge contracts for newcomers to the competition.