Financial worries could force Russia-based KHL to cut teams

© Ints Kalnins
The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) could be forced to reduce its number of teams due to financial pressure.

The Russian-based KHL is currently recognized as the world's second-best ice hockey league after the National Hockey League (NHL), but a recession in the country is beginning to have an impact on some clubs.

The falling price of oil has affected the Russian state-owned companies and regional governments that fund most teams, sending many into debt.

League president Dmitry Chernyshenko told state agency R-Sport earlier this week that the KHL board is set to discuss "an optimization of the number of clubs taking part."

"I think it's possible that the league could contract if the board takes that decision," Chernyshenko said.

The KHL has long pursued an aggressive policy of expansion, with China's HC Kunlun Red Star the latest addition to the ranks for the 2016/17 season.

Despite the NHL also identifying China as a possible target for expansion, Shanghai-based Kunlun Red Star – which joined the league this season – has struggled to attract fans, with crowds under 1,000 at some games at its home arena.

There are currently 29 teams in the KHL across eight countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, with the majority based in Russia. Most rely heavily on Russian state handouts to fund their operations.

The top three earners in the KHL are former NHL players – Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Slava Voynov – each with annual salaries around the $5 million mark.

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Russia’s finance minister, Anton Siluanov, criticized Russian regional governments in financial difficulties last week, saying they were irresponsible by continuing to spend money on sports teams.

Earlier this year Siluanov suggested 5 percent budget cuts would be necessary in 2017, as Russia's budget deficit was predicted to stand at 3.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) next year.

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