Originally created 04/17/99

Gretzky's retirement costs NHL its best-known star



NEW YORK -- Wayne Gretzky's retirement costs the NHL its highest-profile player both on and off the ice as the sport struggles to broaden its audience.

Hockey's all-time scoring leader said Friday his last game will be Sunday's season finale.

Gretzky was one of the few hockey players ever to land national endorsement deals for mainstream consumer products. He has pitched items ranging from Sharp videocameras to Campbell's soup and McDonald's burgers.

"He was one of the few hockey players that everyone knew whether they were hockey fans or not," said Brandon Steiner, who heads his own sports marketing firm.

Forbes magazine recently estimated that Gretzky earned $8 million from endorsements last year on top of an NHL salary of $6.6 million. That put him 14th on the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes in 1998.

In addition to Campbell's and McDonald's, Gretzky's endorsement earnings last year came from Primestar satellite TV, Hespeler sports equipment, Upper Deck trading cards, Zurich Insurance and Canadian Imperial Bank, Forbes said. He also had deals with the Hudson's Bay retail chain in Canada for a line of casual clothing and with Post cereals in Canada.

Gretzky's commercial career could continue despite his retirement. But the NHL's loss of its biggest star comes at a bad time for the league, which needs to find a way to snap out of a television ratings slump.

Ratings for regular season games on Fox this season have held even with last season but are down 33 percent from three years ago.

"Hockey has a very loyal and strong core audience, but unfortunately as a national property we weren't able to build the ratings or viewership or interest," said Fox spokesman Vince Wladika. Fox is in the last year of a five-year contract to broadcast NHL games. ABC takes over next season.

ESPN has the cable TV rights to carry NHL games. The ratings are down 13 percent on the ESPN network and are off 16 percent on ESPN2 this year. While the ratings are down, the number of homes viewing hockey on ESPN2 is steady with a year ago because the network is available in many more communities than a year ago.

Steiner said Gretzky's retirement is "going to be a setback for everyone involved in the marketing of the sport."

Bob Williams, who heads Burns Sports in Chicago, agreed the retirement would be "very detrimental to hockey."

Unlike the NBA, which lost Michael Jordan this season, Williams said "you don't have several players waiting in the wings to step into a leadership role like Gretzky carried for many years" in the NHL.

He said hockey ranked fourth behind football, basketball and baseball in terms of the number of endorsement deals involving its players as recently as 1994. But he said since then, auto racing, men's and women's tennis, golf and figure skating have all edged ahead of hockey.

Williams said hockey's superstar players have lacked "the kind of charisma and personality" that attracts advertisers' interest.

But Steve Rosner, executive vice president of Integrated Sports International, said Gretzky's retirement creates an opportunity for other NHL players to "to step up and carry the torch."

Among the players mentioned by Rosner and others as possible endorsers were Brett Hull and Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars, Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers, Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres, Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings and Mark Messier of the Vancouver Canucks.