On July 1, 2011, the sports world will be turned upside down.
Hockey will rule the world.
The NFL has been on strike for more than 100 days, and continues to burn the airwaves with reports of "hope." Yet players are still running around in unofficial practices, and rookies haven't legally seen a playbook yet.
On July 1, the NBA's collective bargaining agreement runs out. At 12:01 AM ET, there will be no professional basketball until further notice, and lots of experts are starting to think the 2011-12 season is in jeopardy.
The NFL's owners lied to the players, and lost a class action lawsuit. And insiders are indicating that the NBA lockout will make what's going on in the NFL look like a junior high break-up.
Meanwhile, the NHL is experiencing unprecedented growth. Jersey sales are at an all-time high, and a new long-term television deal with NBC Universal (with VERSUS and Comcast's global properties included) has jumped the income of the league through the roof.
Obviously everything in the NHL isn't a Norman Rockwell painting. The Atlanta Thrashers had no ownership or enough fans to financially support the franchise, and the league moved them. Similarly, the Phoenix Coyotes are in financial trouble and could be 12 months to a similar fate.
But the Thrashers had a city begging for a team, and the celebration surround the return of the Winnipeg Jets will last all summer. And someone, somewhere, will probably fight hard to get hockey out of Arizona and into a loving home.
Meanwhile, more than 2 of every 3 NBA teams lost millions of dollars last season.
The NFL has the market cornered on popularity in the United States, and can probably afford their season being delayed more than any professional sport on the continent.
The NBA, on the other hand, no longer carries the same cache with the paying consumer that they did in the 1990s. Losing an entire season could devastate the game, but the state of the Association is already clogging the financial toilet. Too many bad players are making too much money for the Associatio to survive, and it might take a full year of angry fighting for both sides to make concessions to make things work long-term.
When we get to September this fall, the NFL season should be firing on all cylinders and basketball fans should be thrilled about their team's prospects of beating the Miami Heat. Yet, where we are now, there will be little to cheer about except hockey.
As a hockey fan, I'm completely OK with this scenario. As a fan of the NFL and NBA, I hope both leagues learn from the growing pains that hockey endured early in this decade to get where they are now.
Hockey burned their game to the ground and started over with a hard salary cap and floor that has levelled the playing field to the extent that, in the six years since the NHL's lockout, 10 different teams have played in the Stanley Cup Finals and six different teams have won the Cup. The system isn't perfect in the NHL; no system is without its flaws. But the NHL has wonderful rivalries and the level of parity is unparralleled in North American professional sports.
My advice to sports fans in Chicago is simple: get to know hockey. If you haven't jumped on the Blackhawks' bandwagon yet, or if you're one of the thousands that bailed when your new Byfuglien/Versteeg/Ladd/Niemi sweater became a throwback, get into the game. Hockey's exciting and passionate, and is worth your viewing time and dollars. But beyond the field/court/ice, we should all appreciate the NHL for setting the bar for how to fix a broken system, and hope the NBA and NFL learn from the convictions that have worked for hockey.