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With happy cap news, board set to settle schedule

12/5/2006 - NHL

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In spite of troubling trends in attendance in many American markets, the NHL is expecting another bump in revenues this season and a 4-5 percent jump in the salary cap next season, the board of governors was told Monday.

Based largely on ticket increases in at least 25 of 30 NHL markets this season, it's believed the salary cap will jump from this season's $44 million to between $46 million and $47.5 million next season.

''There's not going to be a dip. The cap's definitely going to increase based on everything I've seen so far. We're clearly going to have revenue growth," NHL Players' Association executive director Ted Saskin said after making a brief presentation to the board of governors.

All of which is good news for players and owners, but does it bode well for the health of a league in which teams are struggling to put patrons in seats, even in markets where the product is above average?

That remains to be seen.

Saskin acknowledged the players are concerned about issues like attendance, which is down about 1 percent leaguewide, or about 208,542 fans, compared to last season's record-setting attendance mark. Most troubling is that attendance is slipping in markets that have been traditionally strong, such as Denver and Columbus. Los Angeles has seen its attendance tumble, and Anaheim, Nashville and Atlanta are still struggling to fill their buildings despite strong teams.

"Absolutely there's a concern. I don't think it's a concern only from the players' side, I think it's a concern shared by the clubs, as well," Saskin said. "We want to do everything we can to expose this great game to as wide an audience as we can. On the attendance front, there's no question we're comparing off some pretty strong increases experienced last year, but counterbalancing that, of course, is that gate receipts are growing. They're strong and we're confident we're going to see good revenue growth this season."

One wonders if more casual fans, the fans most coveted by the league, would have been lured to games had ticket prices not gone up almost across the board.

"I'm not sure any of us knows the answer on a global basis because each team does in its market what it thinks makes sense," commissioner Gary Bettman said after Monday's 2½-hour meeting.

"If you raised ticket prices and your attendance drops, maybe you didn't read your market too well," Bettman added. "If you raise your ticket price and you're playing to 99 percent capacity and you're lower or comparable to other forms of sports entertainment, you have to look at each particular case. There's not 'one size fits all' in any evaluation of why attendance is up or down."

One area that many believe is tied to attendance, and hence to further revenue bumps, is the much-debated schedule. And despite suggestions from many GMs last month that the league would hold fast to its current heavily weighted divisional schedule, it appears the board of governors will on Tuesday bend to the will of the masses and cut back on the eight games per division next season and include more interconference games.

It's believed 27 teams want some change, and it's certain they don't want to see more divisional play. That sentiment is especially strong in the West, where it's believed the teams in the East enjoy an easier travel schedule. The Eastern teams also are perceived as having cornered the market on marketable young stars, such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres.

"This is really an opportunity to put the issue to bed once and for all," Bettman said of the scheduling conundrum. "What's clear is while a number of people would like to see a change, there aren't a whole lot of people who agree on what that change should be, and since we're in the middle of a three-year cycle, there's some sense to ride out the cycle. But having said that, we didn't get to that yet on the board agenda."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.