In a recent Soapbox where I contested the notion of player salaries driving up ticket prices, I asked my readers for their comments on the topic and what discrepancies/variables/invariables there may be in my calculations.
Thankfully, some of you took the time to respond and your comments can be found in today's Fans Speak Out.All of the comments were very well-written, with nary a disparaging word to be found. For that, folks, I thank you. Even if, as we'll see, I may not be in agreement with your comments or findings, I do respect your opinions and enjoy a healthy debate on any hockey-related issue.
Due to time constraints, I didn't have the chance to respond fully to all the comments via e-mail as I usually do, but figured I'd kill two birds with one stone today: respond to your e-mails and take care of today's Soapbox.
To those who wrote in, don't worry, you won't get blindsided or slew-footed by my comments. My intent isn't to "have the last word", but just to add my two cents. I'll leave it up to the other readers to decide who's right or wrong.
I won't be posting up the full comments here, as they can be found on my Fans Speak Out page, but just to points that caught my attention. I'm not being selective here, but rather editing for space. My responses, as always, are italicized.
First up is "Carlos":
This is such a complex issue that when anyone, even someone without an agenda, tries to break it down into simpler terms it sounds like they're spinning it.
This issue is creating a lot of confusion, for as you'll see in the subsequent responses, there are variables and other factors to be taken into account for each team. Still, when an average hockey fan like me sees discrepancies from comparing average attendance, ticket price and payrolls of each team, I'm going to ask questions. It would be nice if the NHL would come out with a team-by-team report explaining why these apparent discrepancies exist, but all we get is insistence that it's the rising salaries that are the cause of all the problems. Since it's hockey fans who make the NHL viable, I think the league and it's teams must level with us.
Although I do not believe Salaries and Ticket Prices are 100% directly correlated, I do believe they have more to do with one another than you give credit. Where I agree with you is that everywhere has different taxes and other expenses they must pay on top of player salaries as well as the famous supply and demand issues. So in New York if a teams payroll figures 15th in the league other expenses on top may force them to have the 7th highest ticket prices.
That may well be, so why doesn't the league and/or the Islanders just come out and explain that? We keep hearing that it's all about the salaries, but as we'll soon see, there probably are other issues regarding the Isles that have more to do with it.
As a die hard Islander fan I can tell you that 10 years ago the best seat in the house was $70 and the cheapest was $8 while the team payroll was a fraction of what it is now. Today the most expensive ticket is $175 and the cheapest is $25. I believe that type of a change is due to player salaries, not so much where they rank compared to other teams.
The salaries for the Islanders rose by around $4 million at the start of last season, yet they jacked prices by 38%, the highest ticket raise of any NHL club last season. Somehow, the rise in tickets doesn't match the increase in salary.
Next is Tony Haber, who lives in the Dallas area.
"Compare the seating charts for Dallas and Nashville on their websites and it is clear that ticket prices in Dallas are much higher than in Nashville. There is only one possible loophole and I would be skeptical of even that. Prices for the Platinum level in Dallas are not shown. Those are very expensive seats or suites that entitle one to tickets at every event, not just hockey, held at the AAC. "
The ticket prices came from the Team Marketing Report website. As per their site, " Average ticket price represents a weighted average of season ticket prices for general and club-level seats, determined by factoring the tickets in each price range as a percentage of the total number of seats in each stadium. Luxury suite sales are excluded from the survey. Season-ticket pricing is used for any team that offers some or all tickets at lower prices for customers who buy season tickets. Costs were determined by telephone calls with representatives of the teams, venues and concessionaires. Faxes were sent to verify the information supplied. Identical questions were asked in all interviews."
Next was "Mike G", from Manchester NH.
" On 9/15 or 9/16 I was listening to an interview with Jeremy Jacobs on 850 WEEI in Boston. The question was asked to Jacobs if there is a cap in place would that guarantee a lower per ticket price. He danced around a bit, stating that they had implemented a program with "cheap seats" available. If you know Jacobs, then you know thses seats are typically empty and do nothing but offset the average ticket price. Also, Jacobs has a separate set of books for the luxury suites that are not included in his reported revenue. He then went on to say that he could not guarantee and would not guarantee that ticket prices would be lower when the dust settles. "
That ties in with what Stan Fischler reported recently that some teams, but not all, would lower their ticket prices under a "cost certainty" CBA. Remember, part of Gary Bettman's mantra to the fans about cost certainty is that the league wants to lower ticket prices and make the game more affordable for us. So why, then, is Jacobs suggesting ticket prices may not be lowered if the NHL achieves cost certainty?
Next up is Robert Valpy from Edmonton.
"I am, however, able to point out one major flaw in your numbers. Because the capacities of NHL arenas vary across the league, providing the attendance numbers is not an accurate measurement. It would be more accurate to rank the teams in terms of average percent of capacity."
Here's an updated listing, still ranked by avg attendance from last year but with their capacity included.
1. Montreal/20,555/21, 273
3. Toronto/ 19, 377/18,800
6. St. Louis/ 18,560/19,260
9. NY Rangers/18,081/18,200
11. Los Angeles/17, 883/18,500
12. Tampa Bay/17,820/19,500
13. Ottawa/ 17, 759/18,500
18. San Jose/15,836/17,483
23. New Jersey/15,060/19,040
26. NY Islanders/13,456/16,297
Demand for the product is obviously a major factor in ticket prices. Unfortunately, even though percent capacity provides a more accurate assessment, it still leaves room for debate.
Yes, it does, as per the examples you cited regarding Chicago and Edmonton. One has to wonder just how much of the low attendance in Chicago is attributable to the lousy product the Blackhawks have been icing since the late 1990's. The market is certainly there but the reason for their decline has nothing to do with rising salaries (since the 'Hawks payroll is amongst the lowest in the league) and more to do with how the Blackhawks are run.
As for Edmonton, in a fair and perfect world, with the kind of attendance they have and in a larger venue, they should be able to ice a perennial playoff club, one that could even be considered a Cup contender. The fan support is definitely there. Unfortunately, a small venue, loss on exchange, and lack of a decent TV deal are local market issues that are obviously hurting them.
Next is "Ryan"
However I think one thing people tend to dismiss is the relationship between a teams gates receipts and there overall team revenue. This is something I would be interested in seeing as there is probably some teams (such as Calgary or Edmonton) which rely more on ticket sales then a team like NY Rangers would (due to there large TV contract).
There is no dismissing the relationship between the gate and team revenues, since the NHL is predominantly a gate-driven sports league. For Calgary and Edmonton, they have several factors that work against them in their respective markets. The loss on exchange, lack of major television deals and municipal taxes all hurt those clubs, while their venues would be considered small market even if their fanbase isn't. Those reasons, however, aren't tied to player salaries jacking up ticket prices, but I'd say they're more tied to the other factors those clubs have to deal with.
Next is Ben Smith, who did some interesting number crunching which unfortunately space doesn't permit me to show here, but please check it out.
"So it seems that the
biggest impact on ticket prices seems to be team
So it seems, but I also wonder on a team by team basis how much cost of living and attendance may have more of an impact than team success or payroll. After all, the Edmonton Oilers and Minnesota Wild haven't had overall strong team success in recent years, yet they have no trouble attracting fans. The Oilers cost of living expenses are also a major factor. Still, if ultimately team success is the top driving factor as your analysis shows, the league should be more forthcoming about that, rather than citing player salaries as the sole reason.
Next up is "Ungus"
In your post about ticket
prices and salaries you asked if there were
First there is broadcast
rights. Each team negotiates their own local
Excellent point. That would indeed explain, as you pointed out, why Dallas' ticket prices are so low compared to their payroll.
Or how about other local variables unique to some teams. The Rangers are part of a sports media empire and basically have their own broadcast company, MSGNetwork.
Another excellent point. As you noted, teams like the Rangers don't have to rely on the gate as much as a club like Pittsburgh does.
Then there are the hockey
crazy cities of Detroit , Toronto, and Philly.
The NY Islanders have an albatross of an agreement w/ a company called SMG which manages the concessions and pockets the concession money and a portion of the gate (but not season ticket sales) Do you know how badly this effects the Islanders ability to make money, sign players and turn a profit? Simply comparing their salaries, attendance and ticket prices doesn't take into account the Isles SMG burden and how it affects their business model. Other teams may also have expenses or obligations like this which serve as a significant variable when considering any effects or correlations regarding payroll and ticket prices.
And that's why I want the NHL to come forward with a team-by-team analysis breaking down why ticket prices are the way they are, rather than simply blaming player salaries. When one compares attendance, tickets and payroll, you get the obvious discrepancies that I noted in two recent Soapboxes. Even taking in those variables, however, may not make a solid case for linking rising salaries with rising ticket prices. The Islanders, as you noted, have several variables that bite into their revenues. However, they jacked their prices at the start of last season by a significant margin, yet their raise in payroll didn't jibe with that steep rise in ticket prices. Thus, the Islanders need to list the real reasons why they raised prices as they did.
And last but not least, TJettman in Dallas.
I don't know what it's like in other cities, but Dallas has a strange situation. $38.00 doesn't get me halfway down the upper deck. It takes over $100 to get into the lower bowl at American Airlines Center and over $250 to get near the glass. I have a friend who is handicapped, and they wanted $100 for his seat and $160 for mine to sit in the wheelchair section at the very back of the lower bowl. This was to a preseason game! Also, Dallas gets alot of money from concessions and parking which they don't share with the city. Factor in all the corporate people and your talking about screwing the real fans who can't afford to come to the game.
I will always be grateful to hockey writer and reporter Stan Fischler for nurturing my love of hockey when I was a kid.
Growing up in the 1970s, it was Fischler's books on the past and then-current stars of the game that deepened my interest in the sport's history and bolstered my adulation of my favourite players.
It's apparent in his recent writings that Fischler is taking the owners side in this labour dispute. No problem with that, for I've been sympathetic toward the players side because I feel they've presented the better proposals , have labour history on their side, and that many of the owners are more deserving of blame for creating and perpetuating this mess.
I respect Mr. Fischler, but I feel the need to address some of his latest "Bluelines", which appear on both Foxsports.com (the same website I write for) and the MSG Network website. My comments are in italics.
"NHL owners are outpointing players in the public relations aspect of the CBA war. Calgary Herald columnist Don Martin TKO's the NHLPA with this embarrassing item: Buffalo's Chris Taylor - the league's lowest-paid player ($455,000 Canadian) earns more than Canada's Prime Minister, Paul Martin.
"Something's out of whack when the most unappreciated player (Taylor) in a financially troubled sport doubles the compensation of a G-8 leader."
Agreed, although PM Martin is a millionaire many times over from his days in the shipping industry and his salary as PM is just pocket change to him, but I digress. It is crazy that the lowest paid players earn over $325K US per season and salaries must be brought under control.
But who was it that paid the salaries? Who willingly forked over the cash instead of telling the players and their agents that they were nuts to demand so much? Who circumvented the entry level cap with their bonus clauses? Who willingly paid raises to their RFA players? Who jacked the salaries of UFAs? That would be the owners, not the NHLPA.
Even ex-players are turning against Bob Goodenow. One former NHLPA cardholder, Perry Berezan, says a salary cap is inevitable and that the key is owners' resolve. "Ownership looks like it's going to stick together for a long fight," adds the ex-Flame, now a financial planner.
So the guy whose only claim to fame in his entire NHL career is that he was the last Calgary Flame to touch the puck when the Oilers Steve Smith committed the blunder that derailed a dynasty is "turning against Bob Goodenow. "
I wonder, though, if Berezin was one of those four players to vote against the strike in 1992? Of course he was no longer in the NHL by 1994 so he didn't have to go through the lockout back then.
I know Rick Vaive and Brian Propp have also spoken out, but where was that discontent with Goodenow during the 1992 players strike? Why didn't they speak out back in 1994? Could it be that, now that they have no further stake in the NHLPA, their opinions have changed?
One NHLPA propaganda tool has it that a new salary cap CBA would mean the end to guaranteed contracts. The league's Bill Daly assures us nothing of the kind is being considered.
That's comforting. Now perhaps Mr Daly can explain to the fans how a $31 million blanket hard cap will be implemented without gutting the rosters of over half the teams whose payrolls sit at over that mark, some well in excess of it. And while he's at it, maybe he can explain to us how much ticket prices will drop in all NHL cities since salaries will be so drastically reduced.
Our Calgary correspondent Debbie Elicksen wonders about NHLPA hypocrisy. "How come unioned NHL players, like Teemu Selanne and Forsberg can get European jobs, taking work away from others? Isn't that being a 'scab'? The big shots are snubbing their noses at the NHLPA guys at the bottom of the totem pole."
Yeah, how dare those European big shots like Karlis Skrastins, Denis Arkhipov, Radik Martinek, Jan Bulis, Frantisek Kaberle, Jaroslav Svoboda, Tomas Kloucek, Karel Pilar, Pavel Brendl, Jarkko Ruutu, Ivan Novoseltsev, Igor Korolev and Alexander Khavanov flounce over to Europe and steal away jobs?
Take a good look at the list of NHL players currently in Europe, folks, and you'll find there's a lot of "NHLPA guys at the bottom of the totem pole" playing over there. In fact, the majority are second and third tier NHL talent.
As I noted this past weekend, it's not as though these players waltzed into Europe and demanded contracts. Those clubs WANTED those players, because it'll be a huge boost to their revenues to have genuine home-grown NHL talent playing in their arenas. Yeah, it takes away jobs from those guys who were playing there last season, but that's an issue to take up with the owners of those clubs, not the NHL players. If there was no market for those NHL players, they wouldn't be playing in Europe, now would they?
The inside word is that, yes, ticket prices will come down in some cities after a cost certainty deal, but not with all teams.
Sooooo, if rising ticket prices are the direct result of rising player salaries, why won't all the teams cut their prices? And which teams won't do that? How many of them will and how many won't? How are they going to explain to their fans the reasons for maintaining or even raising prices if the league succeeds in getting the cost certainty that drives down the salaries?
Canadiens' president Pierre Boivin says his Habs won't cut tix fees when play resumes.
There's a good reason for that, the Canadiens have led the league in attendance since 1997, their first full season at the Molson/Bell Centre. They know the fan support is there no matter what they charge. Still, Montreal fans should take heart, their club's ticket prices were ranked 20th. Of course that probably doesn't mean that much to them when they're paying for those tickets.
Attention NHL stickhandlers who've been programmed to wail "no cap" with every breath: Read this editorial tidbit from the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "The NHL free-market festival has been paradise for players but ruinous for the game."
Thanks to the owners grossly overpaying the players by willingly paying out hefty raises to RFA players, jacking the salaries of UFA players through the roof with irresponsible bidding, and circumventing the entry-level cap on salaries with bonus clauses.
The only thing that wasn't the owners fault was the arbitration system, which ensured raises for players even if they didn't get what they were seeking. They had the option of walking away from up to three awards over a two year period, but even I can admit now that in most cases they weren't going to risk doing that with their better players. Arbitration needs to be made more fair to ownership, and the NHLPA has acknowledged that with their proposals.
Don't expect any contraction from 30 NHL teams. As Predators' owner Craig Leipold notes, "The union would hate contraction because they'd lose 30 jobs (one team) on day one!"
Not to mention how much money would be lost to the league overall. If "cost certainty" doesn't rescue the struggling franchises like the Predators as the NHL expects, contraction will be unavoidable within the next ten years.
Considering that Rick Nash is the Columbus franchise, the kid would have been better advised to stay home rather than risk injury in Davos of the Swiss League.
I'm very disappointed with Mr. Fischler over that statement. Nash is no different that the rest of us. Hell, we all risk injury by slipping in the shower or tub, but that doesn't stop us bathing! Nash would risk injury , like all hockey players, just showing up for practice and getting hit in the ankle or face with an errant puck, but that doesn't stop him from practicing, now does it? Nash is doing what's best for him, staying in game shape and earning some cash in Europe. Given the same choice, we'd all do the same thing.
Goodenow says he wants a "fair solution" to the CBA impasse. Most of the civilized world would consider the NHL's guarantee of a $1.3 million average player's salary more than "fair."
Hey, I have no problem with lowering the salary levels, but it has to be done in a workable manner. No one from the NHL has sufficiently explained how they're going to successfully achieve this. "Trust me", says Gary Bettman, "we know what we're doing". Sorry, Gary, but nothing I've seen out of the league over the past ten years has earned my trust. What measures will they put in place to "guarantee" that $1.3 million salary average? How will they stop owners from finding creative means around the hard cap, just as owners in the NFL do with prorated bonuses and incentive clauses? I've yet to see or hear ANYTHING from the NHL on that.
Don Meehan is regarded by some observers as the agent-with-the-most-clout among NHL reps. Because of that, DM is considered the agent in the best position to lobby Bob Goodenow into a sane settlement. Meehan's Toronto-based Newport Sports Management - with 16 staffers -- is the largest rep outfit that is primarily devoted to hockey. If Donny decides that the union boss isn't doing it right, DM could make waves for BG. But don't expect any reverberations until December, at the very earliest.
Mr. Fischler also suggested both last year and earlier this year that there were influential player agents who didn't want a lockout taking place who would try to "influence" Goodenow. Didn't happen then, won't happen now. Meehan, along with JP Barry, Ritch Winter, Rick Curran and Pat Gillis have spoken out against the NHL's position in the past. Remember, if the leagues achieves cost certainty and salaries go down, so too does the agent's cut.
Why is Cost Certainty important to Panthers' owner Alan Cohen? His Florida sextet lost $18 million last season. With a Lockout, he'll save about ten mil!
Yipppeee! It's a red letter day when a team can save money from not playing a season. Geez, what does it say about the state of a franchise when the owner cheers a lockout because his losses won't be as high?
Trevor Linden is sounding more and more like a Bob Goodenow compact disc.
That wouldn't be because Linden is President of the NHLPA, would it?
This was evident when the NHLPA proxy was asked by Bloomberg News' reporter, Allan Kreda about Trevor's Salary Cap allergy. "What," asked Kreda, "is so bad about a Cap if it's used in the NBA and basketball players average $5 million a year?" Linden did a one-minute verbal circle dance. "But," says Kreda, "he never answered the question." No surprise there.
And neither did Gary Bettman when he was grilled by disgruntled hockey fans last week on CBC-TV's prime time news show, "The National".So folks on both sides are equally capable of dancing around an issue. Besides, the NBA uses a luxury tax system which involved a "soft cap", something the NHLPA has already proposed and the league rejected.
Anyone with half a brain realizes that a new pact should be signed, but the NHLPA has this bizarre notion that hockey is the most successful of North America's four major spectator sports while everyone else knows that it's a poor fourth.
Funny, I've read a lot of stuff in the years, months, weeks, days, hours leading up to the lockout and I never saw anything like that coming from the NHLPA.
So, poor, in fact, that subterranean U.S. television ratings forced Bettman - in the most recent pact - to virtually give away NHL telecasts while the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball make zillions from their TV contracts.
Of course, expanding the league to 30 teams, diluting the talent pool, and icing a dull, plodding product had nothing to do with it, right? It was all the fault of those greedy players, right?
Legitimately, you may wonder just how big-league hockey got into this dreadful position and why Armageddon will arrive right on schedule this coming Wednesday.
See above, plus the fact too many owners abusesda CBA that was tilted in their favour.
"It doesn't serve any purpose to go back and dissect why we're where we are," says Calgary Flames owner Harley Hotchkiss, "we have a responsibility to look ahead."
And those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Quick, is this 1994 or 2004?
In the view of some observers, NHL players have been spoiled rotten ever since Bob Goodenow replaced Alan Eagleson as NHLPA boss a dozen years ago.
Yes, let's all go back to those magical days of yesteryear, when Eagleson conspired with the league to keep salaries artificially low, screwed retired players out of pension and health benefits, and browbeat the players into doing whatever he wanted. Ahhhhh, happy days...if you're an owner.
Since 1992, salaries have climbed through the stratosphere.
And who paid those salaries?
In each of the CBA pacts hammered out since then, the union has beaten the NHL.
Because the owners continually underestimate the players. Instead of trying to work with the union, some want to crush it.
"Goodenow made a gamble in 1994 that as long as one owner could be stupid, it would pull the rest of the owners up," says Brian Burke, former Vancouver Canucks president. "And he was right."
So what does that say about those running their teams today? Can we really expect them to get it right this time?
And because they have been conditioned - or spoiled - to think they never can lose to ownership, NHLPA cardholders refuse to acknowledge reality.
Yeah, their proposals of changes to the arbitration system, a luxury tax (something they rejected ten years ago), revenue sharing, wage give-backs, and closing off bonus loopholes in entry level salaries, which could could NHL losses almost in half, sure don't reflect reality at all. What colour is the sky in their world, eh?
"It's all about television money," an upstate New York minor league club owner tells me. "Football, baseball and basketball gets it - big-time - but hockey does not.
"If the NHL got NFL dollars, there'd be a settlement in a minute."
Yes, indeed, and that's one of the two reasons why the NFL's system "works". They rake in big bucks from TV, plus they have a revenue sharing scheme that ensures parity and thus a more competitive league, keeping those TV dollars flowing. That's why some NFL teams can go over their "hard cap" by many millions in some cases and their peers don't get upset, or at least, not so upset that they make a big deal about it. That's why a hard cap won't work in the NHL, because the dollars aren't there to make it work.
Edmonton Oilers' general manager Kevin Lowe sums up the problem succinctly when he says, "The players simply don't know when enough is enough."
Boy, is THAT ever the pot calling the kettle black! I wonder what Mr. Lowe's position was during the 1992 strike and 1994 lockout when he was a card-carrying member of the NHLPA? Anybody remember why Lowe left Edmonton for New York? Wouldn't have had anything to do with money, would it?
And if you're wondering how the spectators feel, check out the 21,000-member NHL Fans' Association.
"A recent poll of the NHLFA members found that 81 percent of fans believe that there should be some form of team salary cap or luxury tax to keep player costs under control," says the NHLFA's Jim Boone. "More than half (55 percent) of fans think a team's salary cap should be between $30 and $40 million each season."
If it's done with a luxury tax system, which is essentially a soft cap, then it could work since you'd be penalizing teams who go over that cap. What methods will the NHL employ to stop teams from circumventing a hard cap? I'm still awaiting word from the league on that point.
I believe that ownership has had it with the greedy, insensitive NHLPA.
Ah, yes, the greedy, insenstive NHLPA, as opposed to the upright citizens brigade called the NHL, where teams willingly paid hefty raises to RFA players, engaged in bidding frenzies for aging UFA players, and circumvented a rookie salary cap with bonus clauses. Yeah, they're a bunch of purehearts, ain't they?
This time management will not capitulate as it mistakenly did in 1995 when a hard salary cap was within reach.
"Mistakenly"? Seems to me a lot of them were chortling over the 1994 CBA believing that they'd gotten the better of Bob Goodenow, who was derisively referred to as "Jinglenuts" during the 1992 strike and 1994 lockout some of the current and then-owners.
"We can't give in this time," an NHL club vice-president tells me, "because we have to get the RIGHT system. At the moment, only the players benefit from the system. We need one that benefits not only the players but the owners and the fans as well."
Say hello to the luxury tax system, which is probably the best proposal you're going to find. Even the "hard cap guy" Brian Burke made that the centerpiece of his "15 points".
Impartial analysts such as Street & Smiths SportsBusiness Journal's Andy Bernstein wonder who will crack first.
"With 700 players in the union," writes Bernstein, "most of whom have a burning desire to play, Goodenow may have a far more difficult time than Bettman in keeping his troops unified."
Seems to me he had no problem keeping his troops unified in '92 and '94. The players today understand they've got what they have because of Goodenow, not in spite of him. As for Bettman, he's got to deal with clubs that desperately need an improved CBA, anti-union hawks who want the NHLPA crushed, and big market clubs who'll be worried about their losses the longer the lockout goes. Of the two, I think Bettman's situation is more tenuous. Even if Goodenow fails this time, the union won't fire him because of everything he got for them in the past. If Bettman fails this time, it could cost him his job.
Management acknowledges that it made many mistakes en route to Armageddon and that explains why it's determined to make major changes.
"We made the players rich and powerful," the V.P. goes on, "and now they're running the league."
BS! The owners decide what they'll pay, not the players.
Yet another problem is Goodenow's take-no-prisoners style.
"I've dealt with Bob Goodenow in the past and I don't think he's the kind of guy who is going to try to work out anything in the whole interest of the game," says Flyers owner Ed Snider. "He's going to hold out. He thinks he can bring people down to their knees, but that's not going to happen."
Goodenow makes no secret he's working for the players, as he should. Mr. Snider probably misses the good old days when Alan Eagleson would meet with the owners and over the course of an afternoon they'd have an agreement in place, which Eagleson would then tell the players how things were gonna be. Check out Gil Stein's "Power Plays" for the details.
Although I hope I'm wrong, my prediction is that 2004-2005 will be a season without big-league hockey.
I hope you're wrong too, Stan, but I think your prediction is accurate.
"It will take a lost season for us to straighten out our game," the exec concludes. "The only thing that'll change things will be the players beginning to hurt, financially, but that'll take quite a while."
That could well be a determining factor in ending this, but so too could the teams, particularly the big market clubs as they're the ones with the most influence.
My forecast is that in July 2005, the NHL will begin signing players - replacement skaters and those who will decide to bolt the NHLPA - and at that point the union will be broken.
It happened in pro football; it could happen in hockey.
Yes, it could, but first the NHL would have to clear it through the courts, then they'd have to fight an injunction filed against them by the union, and then they'd have to face a player strike, making a bad situation even worse.
In the end, we'll have a brave, new NHL world and Bob Goodenow will be history.
This past Sunday I compared ticket prices with salaries and attendance figures to determine if there is correlation between rising ticket prices and rising player salaries.
Personally, I think the figures buttress the NHLPA's contention of no correlation, but some folks disagree with me, which I have no problem with since they did so respectfully, thoughtfully, knowledgeably and other complimentary words ending with "ly".
If any of you have any thoughts on the subject, whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear them and will post them up in my "Fans Speak Out" page, since everyone has the right to voice an opinion...so long as it isn't insulting and vulgar. Those kind of e-mails make me laugh at the stupidity of the writer, but won't earn them a spot among the intelligent readers who send in their opinions for publication on this site.
Some folks took umbrage with Harvard University sports law professor Paul Weiler's contention that ticket prices have no correlation to player salaries, that they're determined instead by what each individual marketplace can withstand. That's also the contention of the NHLPA.
So with a nod to Larry Brooks' piece in Sunday's NY Post, and knowing full well the wrath that could bring down upon my head from those with a low opinion of our Mr. Brooks, let's see where the teams match up in terms of attendance, ticket prices and salaries:
AVERAGE ATTENDANCE: 2003-04 (Source: The Hockey News Yearbook)
1. Montreal - 20,555
2. Detroit - 20, 065
3. Toronto - 19, 377
4. Philadelphia - 19, 375
5. Vancouver - 18, 631
6. St. Louis - 18, 560
7. Minnesota - 18,531
8. Dallas - 18, 355
9. NY Rangers - 18, 081
10. Colorado - 18,007
11. Los Angeles - 17,883
12. Tampa Bay - 17,820
13. Ottawa - 17, 759
14. Edmonton - 17, 678
15. Columbus - 17, 369
16. Calgary - 16, 580
LEAGUE AVERAGE - 16, 534
17. Florida - 15, 936
18. San Jose - 15, 836
19. Phoenix - 15, 469
20. Buffalo - 15, 290
21. Boston - 15, 133
22. Atlanta - 15, 121
23. New Jersey - 15, 060
24. Anaheim - 14,988
25. Washington - 14, 720
26. NY Islanders - 13, 456
27. Chicago - 13, 253
28. Nashville - 13, 168
29. Carolina - 12, 086
30. Pittsburgh - 11, 877
TEAM PAYROLL (Source: USA Today)
1. Detroit Red Wings $ 77,856,109
2. New York Rangers $ 76,488,716
3. Dallas Stars $ 68,578,885
4. Philadelphia Flyers $ 68,175,247
5. Colorado Avalanche $ 63,382,458
6. Toronto Maple Leafs $ 62,458,140
7. St. Louis Blues $ 61,675,000
8. Los Angeles Kings $ 53,833,800
9. Anaheim Mighty Ducks $ 53,296,750
10. Washington Capitals $ 50,895,750
11. New Jersey Devils $ 48,931,658
12. Boston Bruins $ 46,569,000
13. Vancouver Canucks $ 42,074,500
14. New York Islanders $ 40,865,500
15. Ottawa Senators $ 39,590,000
16. Phoenix Coyotes $ 39,249,750
17. Montreal Canadiens $ 38,857,000
18. Calgary Flames $ 36,402,575
19. Carolina Hurricanes $ 35,908,738
20. San Jose Sharks $ 34,455,000
21. Tampa Bay Lightning $ 34,065,379
22. Columbus Blue Jackets $ 34,000,000
23. Edmonton Oilers $ 33,375,000
24. Buffalo Sabres $ 32,954,250
25. Chicago Blackhawks $ 30,867,502
26. Atlanta Thrashers $ 28,547,500
27. Minnesota Wild $ 27,200,500
28. Florida Panthers $ 26,127,500
29. Pittsburgh Penguins $ 23,400,000
30. Nashville Predators $ 21,932,500
AVERAGE TICKET PRICE 2003-4 (Source: Team Marketing Report. Prices for Canadian teams were converted to American dollars)
1. Detroit - $57.11
2. Philadelphia - $57.06
3. Toronto - $56.90
4. New Jersey - $54.67
5. Boston - $54.10
6. NY Islanders - $53.14
7. Vancouver - $50.03
8. Chicago - $50.00
9. Minnesota - $49.72
10. Los Angeles - $46.63
11. Ottawa - $52.36
12. NY Rangers - $44.58
13. Washington - $43.85
LEAGUE AVERAGE: $43.57
14. St. Louis - $42.78
15. Nashville - $42.50
16. Colorado - $42.18
17. Columbus -$41.77
18. Pittsburgh - $41.65
19. Anaheim -$41.25
20. Montreal - $40.84
21. San Jose - $39.15
22. Dallas - $38.34
23. Edmonton - $36.59
24. Calgary - $36.46
25. Tampa Bay - $36.25
26. Buffalo - $35.46
27. Atlanta - $34.87
28. Carolina - $31.77
29. Phoenix - $31.32
30. Florida - $29.76.
Looking at these stats, there are quite a few surprises, some of which Brooks noted in his Sunday column which I'll expand on plus some others I found.
If we take at face value that player salaries determine the cost of tickets, there are some clubs (Los Angeles, Ottawa, Buffalo, Pittsburgh) one could point to and make the case for the link between ticket prices and salaries.
But then why did the Wild, who were ranked 27th in payroll last season, charge the 9th highest ticket prices? When one considers the Wild had the 7th highest attendance in the league last season, it certainly appears that it's the local market, not the Wild's player salaries, that are determining their ticket prices.
Conversely, why did Chicago, ranked 25th in payroll and 27th in attendance, have the 8th highest ticket prices in the NHL? It doesn't appear to be rising salaries driving up their ticket prices or for that matter the attendance figures, so what was the reason for having prices that high?
The Boston Bruins were 21st in attendance but 12th in payroll and charged the fifth highest prices. How to explain what appears to be a discrepancy between their payroll and prices when their attendance is in the bottom third of the league ratings?
Why did the Rangers, with the second highest payroll last season before their late-season purge, ranked 9th in attendance, charge the 12th highest prices? Surely with the second highest payroll, their ticket prices would be in the top ten. So was salary driving their prices, or could it be they could afford to set those tickets near the middle of the pack because of the influx of cash from Cablevision?
Why was Nashville charging the 15th highest ticket prices when their attendance and payroll were amongst the lowest in the league? Shouldn't their salaries be close to the middle third than the bottom?
The New Jersey Devils were 11th in payroll last season and 23rd in attendance, yet they charged the fourth highest ticket prices. One could point to the payroll and attendance figures and suggest that's why the prices were so high, but to be fourth highest in the league seems a tad high, doesn't it?
The Montreal Canadiens lead the league in attendance. When the Molson/Bell Centre was opened, the Habs assured their fans that such a monstrous venue was needed to keep their club competitive. So why were they 20th in ticket prices and 17th in payroll last season?
Hockey is a religion in Montreal, much more so than in Toronto, and the fanbase is there to support it. Given the fact Montreal perrenially leads the league in attendance, is there something else driving ticket prices in Montreal besides player salaries?
Some of the highest ticket prices are charged by teams with some of the highest payrolls (Detroit, Philadelphia, Toronto), but they're also among the top ten in attendance. As noted this past Sunday in my Soapbox, the Wings only raised prices by less than one percent, the Flyers maintained their prices from the previous year and the Leafs raised theirs by over 8%, yet the Wings payroll jumped by $10 million from the previous season, the Flyers by $3 million and the Leafs cut their by almost three million. What gives?
The Colorado Avalanche are among the top ten in attendance (10th) and payroll (5th) but only 16th in ticket prices, below the league average. How can that be if player salaries drive ticket prices? Shouldn't their prices be closer to the top five than to the bottom third, considering their high attendance?
Dallas was third in payroll and eighth in attendance but their ticket prices were 22nd overall. How can they possibly afford those hefty salaries with such low ticket prices? Shouldn't their prices be in the top five?
The Vancouver Canucks are fifth in attendance and seventh in ticket prices, but 13th in payroll. How is that possible?
St. Louis was sixth in attendance and seventh in payroll but 14th in ticket prices. What's the reason for that?
It's interesting to note that there are some teams whose attendance and payrolls are low yet their ticket prices are quite high. Since attendance obviously didn't drive those prices, and neither did the salaries, what's the real reason then for those hefty prices?
Yet there were teams where attendance and salaries were high yet the prices were low. If the salaries are driving these prices, why then are those prices so low? Wouldn't it stand to reason that high salaries equal high prices? For that matter, wouldn't higher attendance also equate to higher prices? So what's the reason for those prices?
Could it be that in these aforementioned cases, neither the market nor the salaries are actually driving those ticket prices?
Now, rather than just write this off as "sloppy" research or hysterical sensationalism as one reader recently did, I would like somebody to actually explain these apparent discepancies.
I am, after all, a hockey fan, one who wants this lockout to be resolved quickly and this squabbling between owners and players put behind us.
As I've stated before, I used to believe the "rising salaries equals rising ticket prices" mantra, but the above statistics have me questioning that mantra.
Rather than dismiss these findings, can somebody out there give me a logical reason for these discrepancies? If there are variables and invariables, what are they? What am I failing to see with these stats that appear in my opinion to poke holes in the "salaries drive ticket prices" theory?
Don't worry, I won't mock you if I disagree with you. But come on, there HAS to be a explanation.
-MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT "RISING TICKET PRICES EQUALS RISING SALARIES. Looks like I'm not the only one questioning that theory. Larry Brooks of the New York Post yesterday asked the following:
"If there's a link, any link at all between payrolls and ticket prices, then what's the explanation for Minnesota going into last season with the league's second-lowest payroll but 10th-highest average ticket price?
Why did Nashville have the NHL's lowest payroll but 15th-highest average ticket price?
Why did the Bruins have the fifth-highest average ticket price with the league's 12th-highest payroll and why did the Islanders have the sixth-highest ticket price but the 13th-highest payroll?
What was Chicago doing with the seventh-lowest payroll and ninth-highest ticket price?
And how come the Rangers, who went into the year with the highest payroll in league history, only had the 12th-highest ticket price?"
OK, I know a lot of my readers don't care much for the ramblings of our Mr. Brooks, particularly when it comes to trade rumours, which I take as much delight in picking apart as most of you do. But you've gotta admit, his questions are valid.
I'm not going to go as far as he does and accuse the NHL of "running a scam", but the numbers as I posted up yesterday, along with Brooks' comments, should make people question the league line that rising ticket prices are the result of rising player salaries.
And that's what I would like the league to explain.
IT WASN'T JUST BIG NAME CONTRACTS. A report from Canadian Press last week cited four contracts as having had the most impact on NHL salary negotiations.
CP cited the NY Rangers three-year, $21 million offer sheet to Colorado Avalanche forward Joe Sakic in 1997; the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the same year giving Paul Kariya a whopping two year, $14 million raise; the Philadelphia Flyers signing Eric Lindros in 1998 to a two year extension worth over $16 million, and the six-year, 38 million offer sheet sent to Sergei Fedorov by the Carolina Hurricanes in the same year.
Tim Panaccio of the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, however, that the hefty contracts paid out to lesser players were just as significant. He cites the following:
- The St. Louis Blues in 1996 signing erratic 22-goalscorer Joe Murphy to a three-year, $10 million free agent contract.
- The usually tight-fisted Boston Bruins signing average blueliner Dave Ellett in 1997 to a three-year, $4.5 million contract, putting him at $1.5 million per season over the then-league average of 900K.
- The NY Rangers grossly overpaying forward Valeri Kamensky in 1999 with a four year, $13.45 million contract. Kamensky only scored 14 goals the previous season and was clearly becoming a spent force.
- The St. Louis Blues (under now GM Larry Pleau) signing checking forward Dallas Drake in 2000 to a four-year, $9 million contract
- The Detroit Red Wings signing Boyd Devereaux to a three-year, $4.6 million contract.
Pannacio argues that singling out the top players in the NHL to blame for rising salaries is wrong, when what was happening in the "lower echelons" drastically altered contracts from the middle tier down.
Bottom line is every team to some degree overpaid players, whether they were big name stars or the lowest guy on the roster. Most of the teams are culpable.
ANOTHER PROFESSOR JUMPS IN. As noted yesterday, I've received e-mails from a few readers questioning the claims of Paul Weiler, a Harvard University sports law professor, that rising ticket prices have no correlation to rising salaries.
Now comes another sports law professor questioning whether or not a hard salary cap will be the cure-all for the NHL's ills.
CP reports Stephen Ross, a University of Illinois sports law professor who teaches classes at the University of British Columbia, believes a hard salary cap would be "anti-fan".
He argues that, while a hard cap might ensure NHL teams make money, it could also reward owners who poorly run their clubs thus depriving fans of those clubs the chance to see improvement.
"Yes, it does protect owners in advance from making really stupid decisions," said Ross, "But what it also protects the owners against is an owner who could spend wisely on a new free agent who will put his team over the top. If a team has not been a contender recently, and they can spend more money to make more money, there should be no limit on their ability to do so."
He also points out that, regardless of the level of a cap, there will always be teams who overpay their players and will be stuck at the cap level. Those owners will then tell the fans there's nothing they can do to improve because of the salary cap.
Ross also has three proposals he thinks would be a better alternative to a salary cap:
1. Improved revenue sharing: This would put more money into the budgets of small-market teams.
2. Allow teams to buy players for cash, much like the transfer system used in soccer: This would allow a team to purchase a player they need to fill a specific need without being forced to give up other assets or driving up free-agent salaries.
3. Impose team specific salary caps: Wealthy, successful teams like Detroit, Colorado or Dallas would be capped to they couldn't keep spending more money on players. Teams that lose money for two or three years in row would also be capped until they broke even.
Radical ideas, but ones which are unlikely to be adopted by the NHL.
A CAP WILL MAKE OWNERS AND GMs SMARTER? That's the opinion of Toronto Sun columnist Mike Ulmer, who recently wrote the following:
"If a salary cap is the only way to raise the collective IQ of owners and general managers to something higher than that of a common household plant, then for God's sake give it to them, arrange an equitable division of revenues and move on."
If only it were that simple, Mike.
I've asked the following question several times of folks who support a hard cap system but I've yet to get an answer:
"If the NHL owners were all willing to circumvent a hard cap on rookie contracts by using bonus clauses, what's to stop them from doing the same thing with a hard cap on all salaries?"
We've seen nothing in any of the NHL's six proposals from last July where they indicated they'd eliminate signing or performance bonuses or incentive clauses in player contracts, and with their determination to get salaries down to $31 million across the board, we've seen nothing as to how they'll ensure no club gets creative in skirting that hard cap proposal.
Supporters of the hard cap point to the NFL and say it's proof positive that a hard salary cap works. Unfortunately, that's simply not the case.
NFL teams may on paper stay within their salary cap, but they prorate bonus and incentives clauses which actually boosts some of them well over the cap. Again, the Washington Redskins are a perfect example, where on paper they're only $4 million over the NFL's cap level but are actually sitting $30 million over it for this season.
The NFL is successful because of the enormous revenues it generates,which the NHL can only dream about, which are shared amongst all the teams thus ensuring team parity and a more competitive league. If it weren't for that, you'd hear grumbling from small market NFL teams about being unable to compete and complaints about teams getting around the cap with creative bookkeeping.
Again, I ask the question, what's to stop a free spending big market NHL club from circumventing a hard salary cap with prorated bonuses and incentives?
Over the past couple of days, I've had a few e-mails questioning my claim that there is little or no correlation between rising salaries and rising ticket prices.
My claim is based on the findings of Paul Weiler, a sports law expert at Harvard University and author of the book "Leveling the Playing Field". Mr. Weiler's book was mentioned by Bruce Dowbiggin in his book on NHL labour relations, "Money Players".
I used to believe, like most NHL fans, that rising ticket prices were the direct result of rising player salaries. So when I first read in "Money Players" of Mr. Weiler's claim that "professional athletes are the beneficiaries, but not the cause, of the increase in ticket prices", I though he was talking nonsense.
Reading further, I was intrigued by Weiler's claim that when tickets and other team revenues rose, so too did salaries and not vice versa. "The price of tickets," wrote Weiler, "is ultimately determined by the interplay of supply and demand in that consumer market".
In other words, teams who draw well usually tend to charge higher prices than teams who didn't draw well.
I decided to see if Mr. Weiler's claims were applicable to the NHL, so I decided to conduct my own research, comparing ticket costs and attendance to payrolls.
Let's look at the teams who raised their ticket prices and see how the salaries stack up compared to their attendance. Remember, salaries are based on what they were at the start of each season and doesn't take into account late season salary dumps or additions.
The New York Islanders - up 38%. Payroll rose from $37 million in 2002-03 to nearly $41 million in 2003-04, nowhere near enough to substantiate such a major ticket hike. Attendance dropped from 14, 931 in 2002-03 to 13, 456 in 2003-04. Granted, the Isles are a mediocre team which upsets their fans, but that rise in ticket prices was a contributing factor to the reduced attendance.
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks - up 10.5 percent. Payroll jumped from $45.5 million to $53.2 million. The Ducks obviously counted on their increased number of fans from their 2003 playoff run to stick around the next season when they raised their prices, and they did, up by a 1,000 from 13,988 to 14,988, although the numbers likely tailed off once they were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
The Detroit Red Wings raised ticket prices by 0.7% to $57.11, the highest price in the league, yet their payroll ballooned from just over $68 million in 2002-03 to almost $78 million in 2003-04. The Wings meanwhile regularly have the second-highest attendance figures in the NHL, averaging over 20,000 fans per game.
The Ottawa Senators raised ticket prices by just over 10 percent, and their payroll increased by only $5 million ($34.3 million to $39.5 million)on the previous year. Attendance rose from 17, 198 to 17, 759, which had more to do with that ten percent hike than the salary increase, as would the municipal taxes the club has to pay.
The Toronto Maple Leafs increased ticket prices by 8.5%, yet their payroll dropped from over $65 million in 2002-03 to $62 million in 2003-04. Attendance also increased from 19,240 to 19,377, third highest in the NHL. How could the Leafs justify raising ticket prices if their payroll dropped?
The Boston Bruins - up by 5.3%, yet payroll only rose by $2.5 million over the previous year ($44 million to $46.5 million). Attendance rose slightly from 15, 029 to 15, 133, still far below the league norm and the seating capacity of the Fleet Center. Ticket priceswill likely drop next season, more to lure back the fans than to substantiate the sharp reduction in payroll.
Washington Capitals - up by 5.1%. Payroll dipped slightly from just over $51 million in 2002-03 to just over $50 million in 2003-04. That's before the big second-half salary dump occurred. Attendance dropped from 15,787 to 14,720. Wonder what those prices will be like for next season (if there is one)?
Minnesota Wild - up 7.9%. Payroll rose nearly $7 million from $20 million in 2002-03 to just over $27 million in 2003-04. It didn't hurt, of course, that their fan base is one of the highest in the NHL, last year ranking seventh overall in attendance and averaging over 18,500 fans per game, which accounts for the rise in ticket costs.
Vancouver Canucks- up 7.4%. Payroll up $8 million from $34 million in 2002-03 to $42 million in 2003-04. The Canucks improved performance made for a continued rise in attendance (from 17, 695 in 2002 to over 18, 600 in 2004), good for fifth highest in the league.
St. Louis Blues - up 0.2%. Payroll fell from over $68 million in 2002-03 to $61 million in 2003-04. Attendance remained roughly the same, good for sixth highest in the NHL. It'll be interesting to see if ticket prices remain the same or drop next season, whenever that may be.
Colorado Avalanche - up 3.8 percent. Payroll increased by only $520K from $62.8 million in 2002-03 to $63.3 million in 2003-04. Attendance remained steady at 18,007, good for tenth overall. Given the slight payroll increase, what was the justification for the 3.8 percent hike?
Dallas Stars - up 1.0 percent. Payroll dropped by $1 million, from $69.5 million to $68.5 million. Attendance dipped modestly, from 18, 532 to 18, 355, still good for 8th overall, but given the sloppy on-ice product last season, the dip in attendance must be a bit of a concern for them.
Montreal Canadiens - up 8.9%. Payroll dropped by $3.1 million from $41.9 to $38.8 million. The Habs perrenially lead the NHL in attendance, averaging over 20, 500 fans per game. The Canadiens raise ticket prices likely because they pay the highest taxes of all the teams. In fact, their tax bill is higher than all US-based teams combined pay for taxes.
Edmonton Oilers - up 6.7%. Payroll rose from almost $28 million to just over $33 million. Attendance rose from 16, 658 to 17, 678, not bad for a club that failed to make the playoffs, while the raise in prices was based on the Oilers making the post-season the year before. It'll be surprising if they cut ticket prices for next season.
Tampa Bay Lightning - up 21.1%. Payroll rose from $29.4 million to $34 million, while attendance took a major jump, from just over 15,000 in 2002 to 16,545 in 2003, which accounted for that hefty hike, to 17, 820 in 2004. The revenue generated from their first playoff appearance in 7 years also accounted for that salary increase in 2003. Imagine how many fans the Bolts could attract following their championship season, which could also see another boost in ticket prices. Hey, ya gotta pay to watch the best!
Calgary Flames - up 1.3%. Payroll rose by over $4 million from $32.2 million in 2002-03 to $36.4 million in 2003-04. Attendance rose modestly from 16,239 to 16, 580. Expect their playoff run in 2004 to bolster attendance even further, with a likely increase in ticket prices.
Chicago Blackhawks - up 5.1% Payroll fell by nearly $5 million, from $35.2 million to $30.8 million. Attendance continues it's freefall, from15, 506 in 2002 to 14, 795 in 2003 to 13, 253 in 2004. Apart from the poor performance of the club, the rise in ticket prices also likely factored into the poor fan turnout.
Out of seventeen teams who raised ticket prices, six teams saw payrolls decline and one team's barely increased. Thirteen of the sixteen clubs who raised ticket prices saw their attendance figures either rise or remain strong in comparison with the previous year. Thus, in most cases where the demand for tickets was high, the prices rose, but in most cases, the increase in ticket prices had no bearing on payrolls.
The payrolls of the clubs who reduced ticket prices last season are more telling:
Los Angeles Kings - down 3.1 percent. Salary up a whopping $16 million from just over $37.4 million in 2002-03 to $53.8 million in 2003-04. Attendance also rose from 17,570 to 17,883. One has to wonder, however, if ticket prices will be lowered or maintained considering how strong attendance has been for a club that missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons.
Pittsburgh Penguins - down 11.7 percent. Salary down only $1 million from $24.4 million to $23.4 million. Attendance in sharp decline, down to 11, 877, the lowest in the league. No wonder ticket prices are down, they're desperate to bring back the fans!
Columbus Blues Jackets - down 4.9%, yet the payroll jumped from $26.7 million to $34 million. Attendance dipped slightly, from 17,744 to 17, 369, but those are impressive stats for a team that has yet to make the playoffs in their short history. Once they put together a winning season, expect ticket prices to climb.
Nashville Predators - down 0.9%. Salaries actually declined from $23 million in 2002-03 to $21 million in 2003-04, yet they've shown a marked increase this off-season, rising past $27 million. Meanwhile, attendance was ranked only 28th in the league and dipped marginally last season from 13, 228 to 13, 168, despite the club's first ever playoff appearance. Given the continued struggle at the gate, the Preds are unlikely to raise prices for next season (if there is one) and probably won't until their fanbase shows improvement.
Atlanta Thrashers - down 13.4%, while payroll rose from $22.9 million to $28.5 million. Attendance jumped sharply, from 13, 476 to 15,121 last season. Part of that was due of course to the emotional rollercoaster the club and their fans were on last season, but that cut in ticket prices certainly didn't hurt.
Florida Panthers - down 8.7%, while payroll climbed from $21.4 to $26.1 million, and attendance rose from 15, 428 to 15, 936. The Panthers are a promising young team, but the cut in ticket prices also helped bolster their attendance.
Buffalo Sabres - down 6.6%, payroll rose from $28.2 million to $32.9 million. Attendance also spiked sharply, from 13, 776 to 15, 290. Part of that was due to the club's notable improvement last season, as well as - you guessed it - a cut in ticket prices.
So out of seven teams that cut ticket prices last season, only two clubs reduced their payroll and saw attendance drop. The rest made significant payroll increases, coinciding with the improvement at the gate.
Now for the teams that maintained ticket prices from the previous year:
Philadelphia Flyers - increased payroll from $65.2 million to $68.1 million and saw a modest attendance increase from 19, 325 to 19, 375, good for fourth best in the NHL. So if rising salaries are the reason for rising ticket costs, why did the Flyers payroll go up nearly $3 million when they didn't raise their ticket prices?
New Jersey Devils - cut payroll from $56 million to $48.9 million, while attendance showed modest improvement from 14, 859 to 15, 060, due to maintaining prices and the fact they were the defending Cup champions. Payroll for next season has been increased back to almost $55 million. The Devils ticket prices, by the way, ranked 4th overall in the NHL last season. If ticket prices are tied to player payroll, then how could the Devils cut payroll by over $8 million while maintaining the fourth highest ticket prices in the NHL?
New York Rangers - Their payroll scarcely rose from the previous season, sticking to $76.4 million. Attendance dropped a bit from 18, 148 to 18, 081, no doubt from fans tired of seeing so much money wasted on overpriced mediocrity for seven straight years. It'll be interesting to see what they do with ticket prices for next season with a payroll cut down to $44 million. If the club struggles as most experts believe, those ticket prices could start getting a lot more affordable.
San Jose Sharks - cut payroll from $37.5 million to $34.4 million. Attendance, however, declined sharply, from 17, 351 to 15,836, but the fan support likely improved toward season's end as the Sharks returned to the playoffs. Thanks to their first ever Conference Finals appearance, ticket prices could rise for next season in anticipation of improved attendance.
Phoenix Coyotes - raised payroll from $35.9 to $39.2 million. Attendance jumped from 13,229 to 15, 469, which is attributable to playing most of last season in their new arena. So a new venue with more seating and better sightlines made it possible to increase payroll without increasing ticket prices. That could change next season.
Carolina Hurricanes - Increased payroll from $33.1 million to $35.9 million, while attendance went into freefall, from 15, 682 to 12, 086, second worst in the NHL, while their ticket prices were already the third lowest in the league. No wonder their owner wants to skip playing the season!
Of the six clubs that didn't raise ticket prices, three increased payroll, one maintained their payroll level, and two cut payroll.
Considering the overall picture, the evidence and facts are clear. When it comes to NHL salaries, there is little or no correlation between the rise of ticket cost and the rise in player salaries.
Robert Tychkowski of the Edmonton Oilers recently posed some questions he'd ask himself if he were "an average National Hockey League player sitting on the couch wondering when the agents, union reps and superstars are finally going to get us a new deal."
I dunno what the "average NHL player" might have to say, although I doubt many of them are "sitting on the couch" wondering about when a new deal will come into place, but I thought I'd have a bash at answering those questions. Responses are in italics:
1. Why, if our union is supposed to be shoulder to shoulder in a show of solidarity, are all the best players packing their bags and heading off to glamourous, easy-money gigs in Europe while I'm sitting back home getting ripped by the fans?
Yeah, how dare they while average NHL'ers like Martin Brodeur, Dany Heatley, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla, Martin St. Louis, Joe Sakic, Scott Niedermayer, Rob Blake, Sergei Fedorov, Nikolai Khabibulin, Todd Bertuzzi, Mike Modano, Brad Richards, Vinny Lecavalier, Bill Guerin, Keith Primeau, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Paul Kariya, Alex Kovalev and Glen Murray have to sit at home in North America getting ripped by the fans.
The point, of course, is that not all the best players are over in Europe. Indeed, it's a mix of some of the best and some of the lesser-lights like Martin Rucinsky, Jiri Slegr, Andy McDonald, Steve Montador, Steve Gainey,Josef Stumpel, Garth Snow, Jamie Lundmark, and Pavel Brendl. Most of those players are also (surprise, surprise) Europeans.
2. If we're trying to convince people that we are not selfish, greedy mercenaries who don't give a puck about anyone but ourselves, why were 150 of us so quick to parachute into Europe at the first sign of trouble and put 150 fellow hockey players and their families out of work?
Most of those players returned to their home countries to play, where they found teams more than happy to take them on, and who could blame them? These teams now have a chance to have some of their best players back home for the first time in years playing in front of their fans. If the owners of those teams weren't willing to sign them up, those players wouldn't have taken away spots from other players.
3. Should I be concerned when some of the same people who've been telling me "Relax, we'll win this. The fans are simple lemmings who'll be back at our feet the day after the stoppage'' are some of the same people who thought the Original Stars Hockey League would work?
Are the empty seats in that humiliating failure a chilling reminder that maybe we've misjudged our own self-worth, and that maybe fans aren't as dumb as they seem, and maybe we should pay attention to their concerns instead of flipping them the bird every time they ask about our salaries?
I haven't read about or heard a single player speaking like that about the fans, although I wouldn't doubt that some of them feel that way, as do the folks on the league side. Indeed, I'm curious as to why Mr. Tychkowski isn't asking the owners why they allowed this situation to happen and why they're refusing to work with the union rather than crushing it and why they're refusing to negotiate with the NHLPA.
As for the failure thus far of the OSHL to attract the fans, let's face it, most fans don't want to pay out over $30 bucks a head to watch a glorified beer league filled mostly with second-tier NHL talent. If the OSHL were filled with top NHL talent, and they played with a more physical style, you'd probably see more fans coming out to watch it.
4. What happens if the stoppage goes for longer than a year and there's a major backlash from fans and the league loses four or five teams?
Considering the apathetic response as time ticked down to the current lockout, I think the talk of "fan backlash" is overrated. Few fans translated their "discontent" into action before the lockout so I see little reason to believe they'll do more in a year's time.
Who are the ones who'll be losing those jobs? Marquee veterans living the high life in Europe or pluggers like me who are only in the NHL to begin with because it's bloated from expansion?
As noted above, the only marquee veterans "living the high life" will be predominantly European. Second-tier players understand their tenures in the NHL are limited, hence the reason they'll want to ensure a CBA that'll continue to pay them well. Since the majority of the NHLPA is made up of second-tier and lesser talent, they know full well what's at stake. They're the ones who make up the majority of the votes in the union. If they feel it's not worth doing, they'll vote to return to the table.
5. Why, when we say we're only doing this for the next generation of players, are they the first ones we're willing to sacrifice with an entry-level bonus cap, and the ones who'll suffer most if fans boycott and salaries bottom out?
Because rookie salaries are one area where the union and the league are in agreement. Established NHL'ers have proven their worth, rookies haven't yet. That's why the league insisted on a rookie cap in the last CBA. Of course the teams then used bonus clauses to skirt the cap, but that's another story. And the rookies aren't going to "suffer", since most of them were sent down to the AHL where they'll still draw a salary, albeit not as much as they made in the NHL, but they'll still get a regular paycheque.
If we really want to help players who honestly need it, why don't we forward some of our money to the previous generation, guys who played in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, guys who really were getting screwed by management and are struggling to make ends meet now? If helping those less fortunate is really the issue here, shouldn't we share the wealth with our pioneers?
That's what the NHL pension fund was for, which all the players pay into. Remember, the retired players, led by the late Carl Brewer, successfully took the NHL to court in the 1990s over the mismanagement of the pension surpluses, which wasn't going to the retired players as it was intended. If you wanna get mad at how some former players got screwed, blame the league and former NHLPA honcho Alan Eagleson.
6. What about all those young players breathing down my neck who are getting better by the minute, playing in the AHL or in junior, getting sharper and hungrier while I'm collecting rust instead of money?
Are they another year closer to taking my job, another year in which I didn't earn a single penny?
Those players would have to worry about young up-and-comers whether they're sitting out a lockout or playing. That's part of the game.
7. Who else on my side of this dispute has a REAL stake in this battle?
The big-name veterans who've been doing most of the talking?
"Big name vets?" Let's see, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios and Brett Hull have spoken out about how salaries have gotten too high. As for the union's executive committee, that's led by Trevor Linden, and while there are "big names" on it like Bill Guerin and Daniel Alfredsson, other members include Trent Klatt, Bob Boughner and Arturs Irbe. Most player reps aren't the "big name vets" but often second-tier players who are more business-savvy and interested in union affairs.
Weren't they set for life years ago with more cash in the bank than I'll ever see in a lifetime? And won't they be safe if teams start folding?
Considering the average salary is $1.8 million, it would be financially irresponsible of any player today not to be set for life or at least comfortable for a long period of time. Remember, the lowest salary in the NHL is just over $320K per season, which is a pretty tidy sum. Most of today's NHL players aren't hurting for cash, and if they are, they can draw on the NHLPA for assistance.
Isn't their career longevity about 25 years longer than mine, plenty of time to recoup the losses? And do they really care if teams fold or a kid in the AHL takes my job when they don't make a lot of money off of pluggers like me anyway?
If the agents didn't want a lengthy lockout, they would've fought it tooth and nail. You certainly wouldn't have agents like Ritch Winter, Pat Gillis, JP Barry and Rick Curran firing verbal bombs at the owners and general managers via the media.
Isn't it awfully easy to tell the union members to dig in their heels and be strong (you know, if they can't get one of those sweet gigs in Europe) when it's not your career nor your money that's wasting away?
Would you prefer the players return to the "good old days" of Alan Eagleson, who conspired with owners to keep salaries artificially low, screwed them out of their pensions and health insurance, and abused the trust of the players he was supposed to represent?
Every NHL player understands they have what they have today because Goodenow wouldn't back down to the owners and fought for the players during the 1992 strike and the 1994-95 lockout. Some of the players might not agree with all of Goodenow's opinions or methods, but they appreciate the fact that without Goddenow they wouldn't have the wealth they've got today.
Am I the only one here who REALLY has something to lose?
Again, with an average salary of $1.8 million, an average player has little to lose financially if they've been smart with their money.
8. What else am I qualified to be doing for $1.8 million US a year? And if this goes as long as they say it might, how long is it going to take me to make up all the money I'm losing?
With the money they've made over the years and with time now on their hands, this would be a good time for players who don't have a league to play in to start considering what they're going to do when their careers finally come to an end. Most of them are already prepared, thanks in part to the union forewarning the players over the past 18 months to prepare for a lengthy lockout.
9. If our position is so strong, so righteous and so honourable, how come everyone is too embarrassed to even say it out loud.
Why do we dance around the real issue with talking points like, "We're doing it for the next generation'' and "We're innocent. It's the owners who set the market.''?
There's no doubt that greed is part of the equation for the players, just as it is for the owners. The bottom line is, the owners made the mess, but they want the players to clean it up for them. The union has been trying to negotiate but the league is refusing to do so. The players are correct when they state that it's the owners who set the market. They're the ones who pay the salaries.
As for "doing it for the next generation", many active players were around during the 1992 strike and/or the 1994 lockout. They remember only too well what things were like in the bad old days and understand that what they've gained came from a hard fight with the owners. They don't want to give up what they've won because they realize they won't get it back. They don't want Marion Gaborik, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin, Dany Heatley and Marc Andre-Fleury to go through what they went through.
How come when I say the real reason out loud: "We'd rather shut down the league for 18 months, screw over our brothers in Europe, alienate the fans and risk the jobs of 100 NHLers than make $1.3 million instead of $1.8 million,'' - it actually does sound kind of selfish and greedy?
This past Wednesday, NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow was part of a town hall-style question and answer session with hockey fans on CBC's prime time news hour show, the National, hosted by anchorman Peter Mansbridge.
The show was similar to the one this past Tuesday, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also appeared and fielded questions from hockey fans.
Below are some of the "highlights" from Mr. Bettman's comments on that show. My responses are in italics.
"The players aren't bickering. The players are the ones being locked out. It's the owners that have started this lockout and they're trying to force the players into a salary-cap situation which they know they won't agree to."
Agreed. Fans have to understand that. If the players were the ones walking away and going on strike or refusing to negotiate, I could understand the rationale for blaming them for this situation. The union has been trying to negotiate, while the league refuses to do so.
"Hockey players are highly paid and they deserve to be highly paid."
I think most fans are for the players to get their fair share, but let's face facts, with the average salary now $1.8 million per season, and with the worst players in the league pulling down a league minimum of $300K per season, most are being overpaid now for their services.
How much they get paid, though, is dictated and controlled by the owners."
For the most part, yes, that's true. Most of the teams willingly paid out big raises to their restricted free agents, and there are several clubs responsible for jacking up the market value of unrestricted free agents with their wild bidding wars from 1997 to 2002.
When it comes to salary arbitration, however, the owners have little control over that. Yes, they could exercise their right to walk away, but does anyone really believe a team would walk away from an award for their best player? The Boston Bruins are one of the most tight-fisted clubs in the NHL, but even they won't take a pass on Joe Thornton's hefty arbitration award. Miikka Kiprusoff got a huge increase in arbitration, but let's face it, without his goaltending exploits last season, the Calgary Flames don't make the playoffs, let alone get to within a goal of winning the Stanley Cup. Obviously they won't walk away from that award.
"The owners control the situation and they'll set the player values. We want the fans to understand that - that it's the owners that have made this situation, created this situation.They control all the dollars that go in. And all the dollars that go out."
The owners are predominantly to blame for salaries being what they are today. Still, the owners are helped along in setting those values by the players.
Case in point: Bobby Holik in 2002. He originally believed his market value was $7 million. The New Jersey Devils offered $8 million per season, an offer matched by the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the NY Rangers came calling, Holik asked for $9 million per season and got it. Still, the Rangers probably wouldn't have made that offer if the Leafs and Devils hadn't bid $8 million per.
And don't forget the impact salary arbitration has played. Even when the players lose in the current system, they win, because arbiters usually end up settling on a mid-way point between the team's offer and the player's demands, thus ensuring the player gets a raise, win or lose. The current arbitration system must be overhauled to level the playing field for the owners.
"Sometimes, people say, 'I'm mad at the players'. The reality is, what we are trying to do is to make sure the public knows 1) the players are locked out; 2) that they want to play; 3) that their salaries have been set by the owners and salaries go up and down based on their performance."
You're right, Bob, but unfortunately the perception of most hockey fans is that of the "greedy player". It doesn't matter that the players have presented a stronger case, both now and back in 1994. The opinion of most hockey fans won't change: it's the players fault because they're greedy.
"The players are not greedy, not at all. It's not the players triggering these problems. The problems are complex and dynamic. It's important for the public to understand that the players are not asking for more. The players are asking for just a fair share and a marketplace system."
Some fans get it, most don't, Bob. That's not because they're stupid or ignorant, but rather they find contract and CBA negotiations duller than dishwater. They also see players making more money in one season than most fans will in their lifetimes. The average fan could care less about the issues, all they want is to be able to go to the arena or turn on their TVs on Saturday night and watch their favourite teams.
Is there greed on the players side? Of course there is. When somebody's dumb enough to toss millions and millions of dollars at you, naturally you're gonna want that and more. But let's not forget there is greed on the owners side too, and it was their greed that created this mess.
"We've tried to find a common ground and tried to find a fair solution, but the only response we've got from Gary Bettman and the owners so far is that it has to be a cap, it has to be a cap. And as long as that's the stance, unfortunately, this lockout is going to continue."
He's right, folks. Comments I've read or heard from most supporters of the owners all admit a luxury tax system is the best way to go, and they grudgingly admit the union is at least trying to negotiate. Bettman and the league are refusing to do so. They're demanding a cap or nothing.
Remember, folks, the players offered a five percent salary giveback and are willing to accept a luxury tax system, changes to the arbitration system, closing off the bonus loopholes in the entry-level contracts and revenue sharing. They're willing to discuss anything except a cap.
"No one's asking for empathy, sympathy or anything else".
That's because the players know they won't get it. As Hall of Famer Mike Gartner, who went through the 1994 lockout, told Bruce Dowbiggin in "Money Players", "I realized early on that there is no sympathy whatsoever for an athlete. And I don't know if there should be any sympathy if players make $1.6 million a year. You can argue that it's a short career, but it doesn't wash with the public. Don't even go there. Don't expect any sympathy".
"Players get paid a reflection of the revenues that they generate, and how that is determined is really what this is all about."
The real issue here is the NHL claims they're hemorraging money and the union doesn't believe them. That's primarily due to the unwillingness of most clubs to open their books and prove to the union things are as dire as they claim. Remember, the league admitted last month their losses were down from $270 million in 2003 to $240 million this year. Doesn't sound like much, but it could be a start of a trend of improvement, because salaries only grew by 2 percent last season, the lowest raise in several years. The players latest offer would've cut those losses down to $120 million.
On the subject of a salary cap, studio participant Lyn St. Georges asked "what makes you think your players are so special that traditional business parameters (such as the cap in the National Football League and National Basketball Association) don't apply, to the point where you won't even enter into discussion on a compromise?"
Goodenow said he can't find one NFLer to say a good thing about their cap.
And for good reason. A lot of hockey fans believe "the cap system in the NFL works", but it really doesn't. Teams regularly spend over the cap limit thanks to prorated bonus and incentive clauses. The Washington Redskins, for example, claim to be only $4 million over the NHL cap of $80 million, but they're actually sitting over $30 million above that cap (Source: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).
The only reason you're not seeing NFL teams squealing about it is due to their revenue sharing that promotes parity and the enormous revenues generated from broadcasting and marketing.
There've also been reports of the NFL players union grumbling about how much money teams are making and how they believe they're not getting their fair share.
"It's all based on supply and demand. What players get paid is just a reflection of the (overall) revenue. We see teams who do well no matter what their payroll is."
Bingo. Unfortunately, too many fans are buying into the league's spin of "rising salaries equals rising ticket prices". Indeed, I used to believe that line too, until I did some research and found out that wasn't the case. For further reference, check out "Money Players" by Bruce Dowbiggin, "Leveling the Playing Field" by Paul Wieler and leagueoffans.org.
WHAT THE MEDIA WAS SAYING: The Toronto Sun wrote Goodenow received more hostile treatment from hockey fans than what Bettman received during his turn in the hotseat. The Sun noted some of the questioning Goodenow faced was ignorant of the concessions the players have made, but that the NHLPA honcho's message got lost in "legalese" and "business bafflegab".
QUESTIONS THAT SHOULD'VE BEEN ASKED: "Have you had an opportunity yet to look over Brian Burke's proposal?"
"If so, is there anything there that could form the framework for a new CBA?"
"Would the union be willing to accept a luxury tax system in the $40 million - $45 million range?
This past Tuesday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was part of a town hall-style question and answer session with hockey fans on CBC's prime time news hour show, the National, hosted by anchorman Peter Mansbridge.
For my American readers, imagine if the commissioner of either MLB, NBA or the NFL came on one of the big three network's prime time news show to field questions about a labour dispute in their respective leagues.
Below are some of the "highlights" from Mr. Bettman's comments on that show, with the reference headlines from the CBC. My responses are in italics.
THE CRUX OF THE PROBLEM
"We have a fundamentally different vision for the game. The union like the status quo (and) I don't blame them - the players have done great. We can't live with the status quo and that's where the rub has been in terms of bridging the fundamental gap of what kind of system are we going to have."
And why have the players done great? Because too many owners spent too much money and blew apart a CBA that Bettman helped midwife, a CBA that 17 of then-26 owners approved, a CBA that was supposed to keep salaries under control.
Unfortunately, Bettman hadn't counted on certain owners being greedy, power hungry backstabbers who'd rather play screw your buddy than play by the rules of the agreement. Now, after making a serious cock-up of the situation, these same owners are demanding the players clean up the mess the owners made!
WHAT'S NEEDED TO MAKE A DEAL
"We need to have a system where we're not losing hundreds of millions of dollars...
...where all our teams can be competitive...
I'm with you so far...
...and where we have affordable ticket prices.
OK, stop right there! Obviously Mr. Bettman is trying to force a link between rising salaries and rising ticket costs. However, according to noted sports law expect Paul Weiler of Harvard University, that's not true.
As he points out in his book on sports business, "Leveling the Playing Field", pro athletes are the beneficaries but not the cause of increaseD ticket prices. Weiler points out that when ticket and other team revenues rise, that causes salaries to rise and not the other way around. "The price of tickets is ultimately determined by the interplay of supply and demand in that consumer market".
That's why the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers charge the highest prices while teams like the Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins are at the low end.
I'm not going to be the least bit apologetic for offering the players a partnership where they get more than 50 per cent of our revenues and would have, under our current economics, an average salary of $1.3 million US. That's more than fair and would enable our game to get healthy."
"A partnership?" The players put forth better and more flexible proposals. Most noted hockey observers believe a luxury tax system is the best way to go, even folks who don't side with the NHLPA agree a luxury tax system is the best option.
The union at least is trying to negotiate. But Mr. Bettman, backed by the owners, is saying, "cap or nothing". That's hardly negotiation nor "offering a partnership". That's hardline, take-it-or-leave-it tactics. It didn't work in 1992 and 1994. It won't work now.
And pray, Mr. Bettman, how do you propose to introduce that cost certainty? All at once and force the majority of clubs to cut down their rosters immediately? Somehow, I don't see the owners of the Leafs, Flyers, Red Wings, Avalanche, and Stars accepting that.
WHY PLAYER SALARIES SKYROCKETED
"Under the term of this collective bargaining agreement, teams with top-third payrolls were three times more likely to make the playoffs than teams in the bottom third. So what you spend has had a competitive impact on the quality of our game."
From the late 1990s until 2002, that was certainly true. But over the past two seasons, we've seen teams with middle third and lower third salaries either beating out those upper-third teams for playoffs berths or eliminating them early from post-season competition. Is that a fluke, or a sign that the trend of overspending to win is waning?
WHY NHLPA REFUTES NHL'S LOSSES
"The union knows the numbers are accurate. This is a red herring. And they do this because if they acknowledge we were losing as much money as we are, then they couldn't explain why they won't do anything about it."
Uhhh, Gary, they are acknowledging that teams are losing money. They just don't believe the numbers are as high as you claim, nor do they believe the number of teams claiming losses is accurate. Remember, the NHL grudgingly admitted last month that their losses were down this season compared to 2002-03. And how can the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers seriously claim to have lost money, especially when one considers how much they've spent over the years jacking up UFA salaries? If it's true, then they have no one to blame but themselves and nobody should shed any tears for them.
AVOIDING THIRD-PARTY MEDIATION
"Ultimately, we and the players' union are going to solve this. We are the best equipped. We are the ones that understand the economics and the operation of our business better than anyone else. And ultimately, we are the ones who are going to have to live with this agreement."
Having your second lockout in ten years, with US TV ratings in the toilet, fan support in the States on the wane, half-empty buildings and a deteriorating on-ice product, doesn't inspire confidence, Mr. Bettman. You're picking the worst possible time to play hardball with your players. But you're right about one point, both sides will have to live with this agreement.
CONSIDERING CONTRACTION (FEWER TEAMS)
"There's no reason to do that. All of our franchises can be healthy and competitive.
I'd like to believe that's possible, as I don't want to see any clubs contract, but I believe it remains a serious possibility. The Pittsburgh Penguins still need a new arena, as do the NY Islanders. You've got team owners in Nashville, Carolina, Washington and Florida claiming they'll lose less money by shutting down the season than by playing it. You've got the many owners of the Edmonton Oilers claiming if the new CBA doesn't help them out, they're finished. Are some teams crying wolf? Probably, but not all of them are. Even if the NHL achieves cost certainty, this situation will remaind dicey for several clubs.
We can help make the game better, but we can't do it when we're hemmoraghing. And that's what we've been doing the last five years."
Too bad you and the owners didn't address the situation back in 2000, when the CBA was supposed to end. Then the problems may not have mushroomed to the point they have, and a lockout may have been avoided.
But noooooo, the NHL just HAD to have that $320 million in expansion fees from the Predators, Wild, Thrashers and Blue Jackets, so they voted to extend the expiry date to 2004 to ensure "labour peace", even though it was obvious back in 1997 that salaries were rapidly rising (from just over $700K in 1995 to over $1 million by 1997, the year they voted to extend the CBA).
POSSIBILITY OF REPLACEMENT PLAYERS
"Legally, that's always an option. (But) it's something we haven't given any consideration to at all."
Sure, it's an option, but first you've gotta get it through the courts. Should that prove successful, then you'll face an injunction from the union. Failing that, you'll then face a strike from the players, making a bad situation worse. If you wanna drive yet another nail into the coffin of the NHL in the eyes of US sports fans, that's a great way to do it! Hopefully, that's an option Mr. Bettman will take a pass on.
EXPLAINING THE NHL'S MILLION-DOLLAR GAG ORDER
"Teams are allowed to talk about their own situation ... and why they're having trouble under the existing system. What they can't talk about is what exactly we need to get in collective bargaining, how long a potential work stoppage can be and what league-wide economics are because we don't want some team talking about the economics of another team."
"In other woids, you mugs keep yer big yaps shut and let me and Bald Bill here do all the talkin', see, and nobody gits hoit, see? Ya all remember what happened to Fat Boy Quinn, don'tcha? Ya think he went on a diet, but we hit 'em where it hoit, in his big fat wallet, see, and now he can't afford those extra trips to the buffet table, see? Gee, Gap-Tooth Clarke and Fast Eddie Snider, dose are nice, fat wallets ya got there...be a shame if somethin' were ta happen to them..."
THE QUESTIONS THAT WEREN'T ASKED: 1. How do you propose to implement your cost certainty scheme, Mr. Bettman?
2. Will you force teams to cut spending at once, thus flooding the UFA market and seriously upsetting the influential big-market clubs? Or will you use a phase in period to allow this to occur?
3. What is your opinion of the proposal made by your former lieutenant and current supporter, Brian Burke?
4. Could Burke's proposals be used as a framework for negotiating a deal?
THE MEDIA'S CRITIQUE OF BETTMAN'S PERFORMANCE? The National Post and the Sun media chain all noted it was a superb performance...of spin. The Toronto Sun noted Bettman did his best "Martin Brodeur" in deflecting criticism from the fans, while the National Post noted there were no questions from fans as to how he'd make his salary cap work. It also noted Bettman choose to spin questions that weren't asked rather than directly answering questions from the audience.
NEXT UP: A CRITIQUE OF BOB GOODENOW.
- HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!
- OVER 150 NHL'ERS TO PLAY IN EUROPE. Some big names too, including Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, Ilya Kovalchuk, Milan Hejduk, Peter Forsberg, Rick Nash, and Markus Naslund, to name a few.
Wouldn't surprise me to see that list grow to over 200 in the coming weeks.
And what about the other five hundred NHL players? Well, over sixty are participating in the OSHL beer league, several others will sign up for IMG's barnstorming tour of Europe in December. Borderline players will either be returned to the AHL while younger players may also be sent down to the minors or, if they played less than one NHL season and skipped the minors, could return to their Junior clubs.
As for the WHA, well, less said about that, the better.
Figure by Christmas nearly half of the 700 plus NHL players will be playing somewhere.
Don't feel sorry about the other half, as they've made enough money to sit out for at least an entire season.
LEAFS WANT A ROLE IN CBA TALKS: proclaimed the Toronto Sun yesterday. Leafs president and CEO Richard Peddie noted the experience of himself, MLSEL chairman Larry Tannebaum and Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr have in "these matters".
"We're arguably the most significant (franchise) in the league," Peddie said. "We know something of the issues from running a franchise that already works with a salary cap."
Excuse me while I rub my eyes and read that remark again....holy crap, now that's chutzpah for ya!
So that bunch knows the issues from running a franchise that already works with a salary cap, eh? Yeah, if your salary cap is, say, in the $65 million ballpark.
The Leafs presently have the highest payroll in the league with the latest figure putting them over $64 million committed to payroll for next season.
Hmmm, I bet they weren't that upset with the NHLPA's proposed salary cap of $50 million, but we'll never get to know that, thanks to Gary Bettman's gag order.
Funny how when John Madden spoke about a salary cap last week, the press was screeching "Players aren't as united as they'd have us believe", yet when a free-spending big market club like the Leafs say they wanna get more involved in the CBA talks in hopes of ending the lockout, it barely merits mention in the media.
So in the interest of fairness, here's what the headline should look like:
"LEAFS TO PRESSURE OTHER OWNERS TO END LOCKOUT?"
-AT LEAST STEVE SIMMONS GETS IT: Nice to see that at least one member of the press has, a week after the NHL locked out its players, questioned just how the NHL plans to make it's $31 million "cost certainty" work.
The Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons noted the Maple Leafs have six players who could be signed on for the 2005-06 season with salaries totalling $30 million US.
Simmons correctly noted the league's pursuit of cost certainty would be a bonus to small market clubs like the Buffalo Sabres but a noose around the necks of big market clubs like the Maple Leafs, whose payroll for this season (if there is a "this season") is in excess of $60 million.
Heck, I've been questioning the viability of the league's $31 million cost certainty proposal since the summer.
Sure, the small market clubs will love it, particularly the handful of NHL teams whose payrolls are presently at or below $31 million, but it'll be much tougher for the remainder, with payrolls well in excess of that magic number, to cut their rosters down to reach that number.
And for influential clubs like the Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, with payrolls sitting well above $50 million, that's not something they're going to accept willingly, if at all.
Simmons also points out that a luxury tax system also won't be of benefit to those clubs, as they'll pay penalties for any amounts they're over the tax limit.
Yet facing those possibilities, these teams either maintained their hefty payrolls or, in the case of the New Jersey Devils, increased their payrolls.
And even those clubs who gutted their rosters in anticipation of "cost certainty" anticipating to fill the gaps via free agency will be in for a rude shock.
The Boston Bruins, you'll recall, allowed almost all their UFA players to walk, expecting that $31 million cost certainty and for the subsequent flooding of the UFA market with players cut from the rosters of other clubs paring down their payrolls.
Only problem, as the Boston Globe noted, was the the arbitration awards for both Joe Thornton and Sergei Gonchar, along with the UFA signing of Tom Fitzgerald and the re-signings of RFAs Hal Gill and Sergei Samsonov, plus the anticipated re-signing of Calder winning goalie Andrew Raycroft, will push the Bruins payroll close to $30 million, leaving them little wiggle room under "cost certainty" to plug the numerous holes in their roster with free agents.
That's leads to several questions. First, are the Bruins insane? Or could they have some plans for a little "creative bookkeeping" under the new CBA?
And with so many teams with payrolls in excess of $40 million, will they accept a $31 million cap? Or one closer to $40 million? And will the NHL impose a phasing in period to allow clubs time to pare down their payrolls? Or will they demand every club to cut right away?
If the latter is the case, can we really expect the big market owners to allow their clubs to be gutted in such a manner, when the end result could bite into their profits?
After all, the Flyers and Maple Leafs are perennial playoff contenders, but if forced to gut their rosters to cut their respective payrolls, they'd become bottom feeders in a big hurry, which could translate into empty seats in their respective arenas and in turn, no playoff revenue to count on for the foreseeable future.
To coin an old early 1990's phrase, these are things that make ya go "hmmmmmm....."
WHO SHOULD BE COMMISSIONER? A few of my readers have recently written in suggesting that the NHL needs a true "hockey man" in the role of commissioner, rather than a corporate lawyer like Gary Bettman. This suggestion has also popped up on the Hockeytraderumors.com website.
Among the suggestions are former Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke, Hall of Fame netminder, bestselling author, former Maple Leafs president and current Liberal Party of Canada politician Ken Dryden, and the greatest defenceman who ever lived, Bobby Orr.
These three are fine suggestions. Burke used to be Bettman's right hand man ten years ago, he nows the inner workings of the NHL and as the general manager who resurrected the Vancouver Canucks knows both what it takes to build a successful franchise and knows every general manager in the league.
Dryden, considered by some the most intelligent and original mind in hockey, understands what the game means to hockey fans, particularly Canadians, and having played it understands it's nuances. He has executive experience and has in the past made several interesting suggestions as to how to improve the on-ice product.
Like Dryden, Orr played the game, understands it's nuances and how deeply it is loved by it's fans. He lacks the executive experience of Burke and Dryden but was instrumental in bringing his former agent and NHLPA boss Alan Eagleson to justice and now works as a player agent himself, so he understands how the money game is played in the NHL.
Only problem with these three is, they'll never get approved for hiring by the NHL Board of Governors, who represent the 30 NHL clubs and as such represent the views of the owners.
It's the team owners who decide who'll be hired or fired as Commissioner, and if there's one thing they don't want, it's a radical mind in that seat.
They want someone who'll represent their interests, not someone who'll crack the whip and tell them to clean up their act.
THANK YOU, NIKE. OK, I know the reason they've made this commercial is because they don't want sales of their hockey equipment to drop during a lockout, but I've gotta admit, it's a terrific piece of advertising that brilliantly captures the mood of NHL fans everywhere. My thanks to "Murph" for sending this in.
GET YOUR "FIRE BOB GOODENOW" T-SHIRTS HERE. Kris Smith, a former Abbey Eagle,Cabri Bulldog and Medicine Hat Cub, is hawking "NO NHL LOCKOUT - FIRE BOB GOODENOW" T-shirts.
Kris believes that this lockout could've been avoided and could be ended if the players fired Bob Goodenow. In a recent e-mail, Smith wrote to me about "some interesting statements made by players recently, like Roenick saying the fans likely think the players are "greedy bastards", John Madden stating that a cap would be acceptable, and of course, Steve Thomas saying that things can be learned from other leagues caps, then being silenced by the NHLPA.
I also would like to know what you make of the fact that the NHLPA has no e-mail or phone contacts listed on its web page? Possibly afraid of public backlash?
the owners look bad here, too, but the players thinking that
they had done nothing wrong ends now, because they have one of
the best workplaces in the world, and as long as a labor deal
was in place they were doing nothing wrong.Now that the deal
is expired, they should put things into perspective,show some
respect to average, everyday people, accept a little less wealth,
fire Goodenow, as he is the NHLPA icon, and lace up the blades.
It is wrong to ask your employer for more than what he has given
you when you are a millionaire hockey player.
SO MUCH FOR INFLUENCE: Remember how some folks in the press were speculating that a lockout might be avoided with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux facing the players during the CBA talks?
As I predicted, they had no impact whatsoever. The whole speculation was based on the (wishful) hope that the players would be so respectful of Gretzky and Lemieux that they'd be more willing to compromise and seek a deal.
Lemieux avoided all CBA talk with the players during the recent World Cup of Hockey, waiting until the end of the tournament to comment and then only to say that he hoped a deal could be reached.
As for Gretzky, the New York Post reported "the Great One" stating he fully supported NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and was on the side of management.
That's a big change from ten years ago, when Gretzky fully supported NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow and, according to the Post, was part of an influential behind-the-scenes group that helped settle the 1994-95 lockout.
But it shouldn't come as a surprise. NHL players ten years ago faced off with former NHL'ers like Phil Esposito, Serge Savard, Bob Clarke, Bob Gainey, Doug Risebrough and Glen Sather facing them as general managers. It was believed back then they too might have some influence on the players but of course that came to naught.
Attitudes change once you leave the ice and work in the front office, or in the case of Lemieux and Gretzky, when you're sitting in the owner's chair.
And don't forget, they also have to toe Bettman's party line or face serious fines if they break the gag order he's placed on the owners.
Their influence obviously carried no weight in avoiding a lockout. It's doubtful they'll have much sway in talks to end it.
TEAM CANADA RESENTFUL OF GRETZKY? Speaking of the Great One, Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons reports several unnamed members of Team Canada were apparently resentful of all the media attention Gretzky got during the tournament.
Personally I don't buy into that one at all. If anything the players were probably grateful that Gretzky was getting a lot of attention from the press. Players sometimes look at reporters as a nuisance that has to be tolerated. A guy like Gretzky running interference with the press allows the players more time to bond without the distraction of answering the same boring questions every day.
That's a little trick Gretzky learned from Glen Sather during their years at the head of the Edmonton Oilers dominance of the mid-to-late 1980s, one that Gretzky used to perfection when he lashed out at the press during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Most of the players know that Gretzky is still considered THE hockey icon, the game's greatest player. If there was a bit of jealousy or resentment, it was most likely kept to themselves.
Besides, until any of today's bunch can come close to accomplishing what Gretzky did during his playing days, they'll just have to get used to being forever in the shadow of the Great One.
BARNSTORMING: In the absence of an NHL season, a couple of barnstorming leagues have popped up with NHL players actively involved.
The International Management Group (IMG) which represents many of the top NHL stars, will be conducting a two-to-three week barnstorming tour of Europe in December.
According to TSN.ca, the tour will consist of NHL stars playing exhibition games against European clubs. Some of the players contacted to play for this team include Sergei Fedorov, Mats Sundin, Martin Brodeur, Rob Blake and Dany Heatley.
IMG is also hoping to get a TV deal in place whereby those games can be broadcasted.
Meanwhile, there's the OSHL (Original Six Hockey League), set up by a Missisauga, Ontario businessman, which will tour Canada with NHL players on six teams participating in four-on-four action with no bodychecking or centre ice lines, no-touch icing and penalty shots rather than two-minute penalties.
According to the Canadian Press, Dominik Hasek, Dan Cloutier, Andrew Raycroft, Jeff Friesen, Steve Sullivan, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Smyth, Doug Weight and Scott Gomez are among many of the NHL'ers participating.
The first game was in Barrie, Ontario this past Friday, which saw "Toronto" beat "Detroit" 16-13 in front of just over 2100 fans. Goaltender Dan Cloutier considered it a lot of fun despite the high number of goals.
It's not a game that's being taken too seriously thus far by the participants, who are using the league as a means to stay in shape over the next several weeks.
The players also get a cut of the gate, although it remains to be seen just how many fans will pay out between $34 to $60 to watch NHL stars essentially play beer league rules in contests that don't mean anything.
HERE COME THE PINK SLIPS: According to the Camden Courier-Post, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that today over 100 of the NHL's 225 staff personnel would be fired.
That's not counting the untold hundreds of team employees who face either being laid off, paid reduced wages or cut back to part time employment.
Still, as noted by the New York Post last week, if the NHL made over $20 million in interest on their $300 lockout "war chest", why didn't they use that money to retain the employees they're firing?
Does it suit the league's purpose by firing those employees and blaming the players for the lockout by pointing out how many innocent league employees are being hurt by their demands? Naaaw, they wouldn't stoop that low, would they?
In the weeks/months/years leading up to the current NHL lockout, a rising chorus of voices was heard amongst NHL fans for somebody to be made accountable for the league's labour woes. Since the announcement this past Wednesday of the NHL's lockout out the players, the voices have been even louder:
Fire Gary Bettman.
It's no secret Bettman, the NHL's commissioner, isn't very popular amongst hockey fans, particularly here in Canada where the opinion of Mr. Bettman is that he's just "another American lawyer" who knows nothing of the game and is driving it to ruin.
Well, it's certainly true Bettman is an American lawyer, but I don't think there's much difference between an American lawyer and a Canadian lawyer. Take that to mean what you will.
It's just that those Canadian fans who hate Bettman and use the term "American lawyer" as a putdown are basing it on their loathing of both Americans and lawyers, which isn't fair.
And it's true he didn't know very much about hockey for a long time before he became the NHL's commissioner, having worked for the National Basketball Association. In fact, he deserves part of the credit (or blame) for the NBA's current "Larry Bird clause" which allows NBA teams to spend over their salary cap to re-sign certain star players.
Since coming onboard as NHL commissioner, Bettman's done quite a few things to improve the way the league is run. According to the book, "Money Players", by Calgary Herald sports journalist Bruce Dowbiggin, Bettman guided the league through an ugly lawsuit by former players over the distribution of surplus monies in the players' pension fund. He also had to steer the league through a class action lawsuit launched by former players against former NHLPA honcho Alan Eagleson and an FBI investigation of the latter. There was also the embarassment of former NHL president Gil Stein's attempt to induct himself into the Hockey Hall of Fame and charges of fraud against former LA Kings owner Bruce McNall.
"Money Players" also noted Bettman "overhauled the league's technology and communications", doubled the head office staff and the budget for "personnel and technology", and landed two major televisions contracts that put the league back into mainstream US TV. The NHL's great expansion boom, which was planned before Bettman became the commissioner, occured soon after he took over the job, expanding from 22 clubs in 1992 to 30 by 2000.
Bettman also runs a tight ship with owners and general managers which has earned him praise from some of the same. He also worked hard to help the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres get through their respective bankruptcies and find new ownership who would keep those teams in their cities.
And finally, on Bettman's watch, the value of NHL teams has skyrocketed, from the "mid-$50-millions to as much as $266 million, the value Forbes magazine recently rated the Detroit Red Wings", according to "Money Players".
But what's also painfully apparent is the quality of the on-ice product has deteriorated since Bettman came on board as Commissioner back in 1992. That in turn has led to the free fall in the TV ratings and the almost charitable revenue sharing contract the league now has with NBC worth over $100 million, compared with the $600 million they made from ABC and ESPN.
Thanks to ugly incidents like Marty McSorley's infamous lumberjack swing at Donald Brashear's head in 2000 and Todd Bertuzzi's nasty sucker punch to the head of Steve Moore in 2004, the NHL's image in the minds of American sports fans remains that of cockfighting on skates. The old joke of "I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out", entrenched before Bettman came in, was only reinforced by those incidents and underminded his attempts to eliminate violence from the game.
As the value of franchises has increased under Bettman's watch, so has the cost of attending an NHL game. In 2001, Sports Illustrated reported it would cost a family of four an average of $240.00 to attend an NHL game. That's factoring in the cost of mid-level tickets, parking and concessions. Those prices are keeping away the sports lower middle class fanbase.
The league has now suffered through two lockouts during Bettman's tenure, and over the past ten years the average salaries of NHL players soared from just over $700K in 1995 to $1.8 million in 2004. If the league's figures are to be believed, 20 of its thirty franchises have lost money, some of whom are apparently in danger of relocation or folding altogether.
Looks like a good basis of reasons to fire Bettman, but would things really have been different with somebody else at the helm?
Some folks believe the league needs a stronger hand at the tiller, pointing to former NHL executive and Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke as a replacement.
The trouble with that, however, is Burke is too independent minded and outspoken, something the owners will not abide.
It's not an easy task for Bettman to be NHL commissioner. Despite the front of unity put up by the owners, they're actually split up into several camps. One is the big-market free spenders, teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and until recently, the New York Rangers. The owners of those clubs believe that since they generate the most money, they should be able to spend it as they see fit, regardless of the consequences to their lesser peers.
Another camp is "the hawks", the owners of big and small market clubs who not only want a cap on player salaries but want to crush the players union once and for all. Detroit's Mike Illich, Carolina's Peter Karmonos and Boston's Jeremy Jacobs are the two most notable in this group.
Yet another is, of course, the owners of small market clubs who are struggling to stay afloat as player salaries continue to soar. Edmonton, Calgary and Buffalo fall into this group, who are legitimately concerned that, without some form of controls over salaries, their very existance could be threatened.
There are also a few moderates who want salaries under control but also seek to work with the union to achieve those results. Unfortunately you don't hear very much about these owners, but it's believed Wayne Gretzky, part-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Mario Lemieux, owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, fall under this group, due in no small part to the fact they were in the NHLPA camp during the 1992 strike and 1994 lockout.
Bettman has his work cut out for him with this bunch, having to come up with a solution that'll placate every one. Should he fail to keep at least one of these groups happy, he runs the risk of losing his job.
It's easy to think of Bettman as little more than the owners yes-man, but that would be a mistaken caricature. Bettman is only doing what any lawyer, Canadian or American, does: he represents his client and their interests. In this case, he's representing 30 clients - the owners.
If Bettman weren't doing the job, the league would simply hire another corporate lawyer to do the task for them. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, and nothing would change.
It's the owners who ultimately make the decisions that affect the league. Bettman is no yes-man, but rather their front-man.
There are also voices, not as many or as loud, screaming for the head of NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow.
Some in this group feel that Goodenow is either just as culpable as Bettman, or more so for the lockout. They believe Goodenow has turned the players into "greedy, spoiled brats" and that if he were replaced, the players would be more respectful and understanding of the fact their salaries are driving the game to ruin and would accept the owners claims of poverty at face value.
There are also some, even in the print media (MSG Network and Foxsports.com hockey reporter Stan Fischler is one) who believe that some players would be willing to accept a salary cap and continue playing, but that Goodenow is using dictatorial powers to keep those players in line with his plans.
This bunch believes that, if the season is lost to a lockout, the players and their agents might rise up and fire Goodenow. There's speculation of a player revolt if the league forces them into strike mode, or if the union ultimately accepts the league's terms.
Only problem is, that opinion isn't based on facts.
There are undoubtedly some players who disagree with the way Goodenow may be handling this situation, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the players voted for this lockout. It wasn't done by show of hands but by secret ballot. The players voted to back Goodenow, even though they knew they were risking the season.
During Goodenow's tenure, the players have made great financial strides. Unlike his predecessor Eagleson, who conspired with owners to keep down the salaries of the very players he was supposed to represent, as well as plundering their pension plan and leaving them with shoddy health insurance, Goodenow proved to be a tough negotiator who was willing to work his ass off for the players.
He guided them through their strike in 1992 and the 1994-95 lockout, both landmark victories for the NHLPA. He also encouraged players and agents to actively participate in NHLPA meetings and to ask questions, something that was actively discouraged under the bullying Eagleson.
He's also ensured that his player representatives are "team guys", players like Trevor Linden, Bob Boughner, Daniel Alfredsson and Joe Nieuwendyk, who are very knowledgeable and widely respected by their peers.
As noted in, "Money Players", Goodenow increased the players revenues from group licensing and educated the players on the "culture of labour negotiations". He won for them the right to become free agents as well as salary arbitration, which has made many of them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.
The players have all gained under Goodenow's tenure. Should the union eventually be forced to accept the NHL's "cost certainty", the players aren't going to revolt and fire him.
Even if they did, they wouldn't hire a milquetoast to replace him. The players today are much more educated about their labour history and the nuances of labour negotiations than they were back in the bad old days of Alan Eagleson. They won't go back to that again, no matter who's in charge of the union.
Canadian hockey fans were deluged with news on the announcement of the NHL lockout. It made the front page of all the major papers across the country, with the sports sections devoting many pages to it. It was among the top stories in the broadcast media, and not just on the sports networks, but on CBC, CTV and Global as well.
But in the United States, where most NHL clubs are located and where the league's success is so dependent, the news of the lockout was greeting with a collective yawn.
A few papers devoted more than a few paragraphs to the story, but most buried it well back in their sports page. It also received scant attention in the American broadcast media.
If I've said it once, folks, I've said it a thousand times and will say it a thousand more: A sports league that bases it's success on how it does in the American market having such a serious visibility problem should avoid a labour stoppage like the plague.
This is one point where I would ask Gary Bettman and company, "what the hell are you thinking?"
The US sports market could care less about the NHL. Ten years ago, the National Hockey League was poised for a major breakthrough in that market. Hell, Sports Illustrated and Newsweek devoted cover stories to it, citing how the sport was challenging the NBA for popularity in the United States.
A decade later, the NHL can't even outdraw re-runs of the World Series of Poker. Hey, no offence to poker fanatics, but come on! Watching poker is like watching paint dry, and a fast-paced sport like hockey should at least be able to beat out heavyset guys playing cards!
According to the Calgary Sun, the NHL's ratings are below that of poker, ten-pin bowling and soccer. Now I know soccer is the world's most popular game, but it's not in North America, although that could likely change over the next decade as more and more kids are playing the sport than ever before.
I love soccer, played it lots as a kid and adult, but I find it very boring to watch on TV. You think watching the trap-filled version of the NHL is dull! Soccer makes the obstruction-laden NHL look like the Indy 500 in terms of speed and flow.
But that's the whole point, isn't it. Professional hockey, the fastest contact sport on two legs, the coolest game on ice, is dropping off the radar in the United States.
Those sports columnists in the US who did devote more than a few passing lines toward the NHL lockout news seemingly agreed on one point: the American sports market won't miss the NHL if the 2004-05 season is lost to the lockout.
That's not to suggest there won't be Americans who won't care, but unfortunately their numbers are sufficiently strong enough to make a difference.
The NHL's visibility in the US sports market has been in trouble for several years now. Falling ratings was the prime reason Fox television opted not to renew it's contract with the NHL in 1999, and those ratings never improved with ABC, who also decided they had better things to show on their network than hockey.
That's what led to the embarrassing contract the NHL signed with NBC, which is a pittance compared to the $600 million deal the league had with ABC. As one Fox executive was quoted as saying, the reason NBC signed the NHL is because they're being good guys.
I loved the spin the NHL put out a couple of years ago when ABC and ESPN cut back the number of games they would broadcast for the 2002-03 season. They claimed this move was prevent the NHL from becoming "over-exposed".
After I recuperated from my laughing jag, I realized the NHL spokesman really had no choice. There's no good way to address declining ratings so you put the best spin on it you can and hope the media finds something else to write about.
Now I realize Canadian hockey fans will say, who gives a flying fig about the NHL's visibility problem in the States. We love the sport, not them, and if the league contracts in the US market, that'll just make the sport better.
That may likely be the fallout, but I think it's a crying shame that it had to come to this.
No question, the league is too big and the talent pool too thin, but I honestly believe if the NHL had actually cracked down on obstruction, put limitations on the size of goalie equipment, implemented no-touch icing and eliminated the centre red line, the product would've been vastly improved, as would the sport's visibility.
Let's face it, hockey fans, we all know that when this game is played well it's the greatest game in the world. Back in the early 1990s, the NHL had achieved a perfect balance with their product. You had outstanding goaltending, terrific defence, and outstanding offence. The game flowed and was exciting. A regular season matchup between two strong clubs didn't lull you to sleep.
That was why the game's popularity was on the rise in the United States ten years ago.
But in the last ten years, the deterioration of the on-ice product by obstruction, overinflated goalie equipment, endless icings and constant "trapping" hockey has sucked the life out of the game, and scuttled the league's attempts to grow the game in the US.
By staging a lockout when the game is clearly in trouble in the US market only compounds the problem. It's just not good business, and in the long haul is going to have serious consequences for some of the struggling teams in the United States.
Rather than pursuing their unreasonable quest to crush the union, the NHL should be focusing more attention on working with their players to improve their product.
That had better be their first order of business when the labour impasse is settled, otherwise, the next messy chapter in NHL history will be titled: Contraction.
TSN HAS OUR HOCKEY FIX! Worried about suffering withdrawal symptoms due to the lack of NHL hockey this fall? Well, in Canada at least, TSN is offering a cure.
Starting next month, TSN will broadcast classic international and NHL games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
For our American cousins, hopefully they'll broadcast classic games on ESPN Classic, as I didn't see any games listed in their upcoming schedule. If not, you may wanna get a dish for the TSN experience.
During the final game of the recent World Cup of Hockey, former NHL executive and former Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke offered up a fifteen-point proposal aimed at resolving the current labour impasse.
Burke's proposed "fifteen points" (as posted on CBC's hockey website) are as follows:
1. Phase in an agreement within two years;
2. Commit to a 12-year contract;
7% of players
4. Agree to share revenues of $200 million with $75 million coming from playoff pool;
5. Avoid luxury tax by establishing a payroll threshold at $38 million and minimum of $33 million;
6. Set overage fees as follows:
- fifty cents on the dollar;
7. Reward good business behaviour by charging fees to repeat offenders;
8. Guarantee players 55% of DHR (designated hockey revenue);
9. Build trust with joint audit controls:
- $1 million fine;
10. Establish four-year entry level system with maximum $250K in bonus clauses.
11. Reduce UFA age limit to 29
12. Amend qualifying offers to RFAs:
Team with players rights only has to match 75% of an offer sheet is over 26, and 50% for players 26 and younger.
13. Reduce regular season games from 82 to 70
14. Revise salary arbitration by:
baseball's high/low system;
15. Set a "drop-dead date" for player signings.
So how feasible is this plan? Let's have a look, point by point:
1. It only makes sense to have a "phase in" period to allow some clubs the opportunity to adjust their payrolls accordingly. A lot of the teams have payrolls in excess of $40 million and would need time to pare down payrolls accordingly.
2. Burke feels this system will work if the players are guaranteed a percentage of HDR combined with an escrow portion and a portion of league revenues. But 12 years is a long time, and as we've seen with the previous CBA, a lengthy deal doesn't allow for changes when a serious unforeseen flaw is exposed. Perhaps a five to seven year period might be more palatable, or perhaps a review period at the halfway point to allow both sides to address potential problem areas.
3 .Escrow (the holding of assets by a third party for delivery to a grantee upon fulfillment of specified conditions, according to my trusty Concise Oxford) is something that's been done in the NBA with some success. I must confess I don't know enough about escrow to decide if it's worthwhile or not, although I'm going to be researching it. Any help from readers knowledgeable with the system would be appreciated.
4. Revenue sharing is a popular idea among small market clubs and their supporters but not so much amongst big market teams. Teams like the Rangers, Maple Leafs, Flyers and Red Wings would likely fight Burke's suggestion that a good chunk of the playoff revenues should come from the wealthier teams.
5. Burke says he doesn't like the term "luxury tax" and isn't backing off a salary cap but feels his numbers are flexible. In other words, this could be considered a soft cap, which is just like a luxury tax system. The league would probably like the numbers, but the union probably won't. Still, this could, to coin the now well-worn phrase, "form the basis of a framework for future negotiations.
6. I agree with Burke that any tax system (or overage fees as he calls them) needs to have teeth to discourage the wild free spending of the past. The union's last proposal was slammed hard by some critics, but at least it shows the union has a willingness to discuss the issue, unlike the league who've put both fingers in their ears and gone "lalalalalalala .."
7. I also agree with this point of Burke's proposals. Nail those who would consistently blow a soft cap or threshold out of the water with their irresponsible spending and reward those who run their teams responsibly.
8. Guaranteeing the players a percentage of the DHR should also be of interest to the union, although they might want to haggle over the amount. Again, "form the framework"
9. Burke said this point would tag those teams who try to hide money. A noble intent but tough to prove in this era of creative bookkeeping and the apparent unwillingness of most owners toward full disclosure.
10. Both sides would probably agree to this point. The feeling on both sides is rookies have to justify themselves before seeking big bucks. The union is also in favour of closing off the bonus clause loopholes in entry level salaries.
11. Lowering the CBA age by even two years would likely meet the approval of both sides. It gives the players an earlier shot at UFA status and allows teams to bid for players who are still in their prime.
12. The players aren't likely to sit still for this one, but I think Burke has a point here, since RFA players can reject a qualifying offer and hold out for more money while their team still holds their rights.
13. Another point that both sides will likely agree upon. Many players are on record claiming they find the current schedule too physically taxing and it's undoubtedly a key factor in the rise of injuries. Even some owners are believed interested in reducing games in order to improve the product.
14. Yet another point that both sides will agree to. The players union expressed a desire to negotiate changes to the arbitration system. The "hi/low system", whereby an arbiter picks either the player's or team's proposals, rather than one in the middle that guarantees a raise to the player under the current system, makes a lot of sense.
15. The "drop-dead" issue would be a double-edged sword for both sides. Yes, it puts added pressure on both sides to get a deal done, but it also has the possibility of blowing up in their faces. Risking losing a top player for a year could put teams into an position of weakness whereby they'd be forced to sign a player to a deal they could later regret. The same goes for the player.
Overall, Burke's proposal makes a lot of sense. Most of the points, like phasing in an agreement, revenue-sharing, overage fees, rewarding good business behaviour, clamping down on entry level bonuses, leveling the playing field in arbitration, lower the UFA age limit, reducing the number of regular season games, and amending the qualifying offers could and should appear in the next CBA. They're definitely points worth considering.
Some of the others, for the reasons I've noted, would likely have to be negotiated and some probably won't be accepted by one side or the other.
Still, it's a proposal I would've applauded if it came from the league. Pity Burke isn't one of Gary Bettman's lieutenants this time around. Then again, if he were, I wonder if he'd be willing or allowed to make this proposal?
The next question is, will we see or hear any response from either side on this? Will it be taken into consideration or simply dismissed outright?
Hopefully we'll hear something from the league or the union. It would be a shame to see a proposal from an knowledgeable third party like Burke fall by the wayside.
PROPS FOR ME! Yes, that's right, I got a small three-para blurb in the September 16th National Post's front page commentary on the NHL lockout. Actually, my bit appeared on page A11, but it was part of their front page story.
For those of you who missed it, here it is in all it's glory, from the National Post's story, "Hockey fans get that empty feeling":
"Lyle Richardson, who runs an independent NHL fan site called Spector's Hockey, said yesterday "the league is holding this lockout at the worst possible time."
Mr. Richardson, a reservist in the Canadian Forces based in Charlottetown, said interest in the sport is already sagging.
"When reruns of the World Series of Poker are outdrawing the World Cup of Hockey on ESPN, you've got a problem".
Naturally I was speaking of the sorry state of the NHL's ratings in the US. Here in Canada, where Hockey Night in Canada is a national institution, there's no worries about TV ratings for pro hockey. But in the all-important US market, the ratings are lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut.
And don't worry, I promise not to let the fame go to my head....
SOMETIMES YA JUST GOTTA LAUGH: My thanks to J. Traber who sent along the following link. No matter how serious things get, you've still gotta be able to laugh, otherwise, you'd sob uncontrollably and roll up into a fetal position under your desk, clutching a bottle of half-empty Glenlivet and listening to "The Wall" over and over again...oh wait, that's how I reacted when my first marriage broke up...never mind.....
NHL ADVERTISING ON MY SITE: A couple of fans wrote in to me since the lockout was announced asking me to take down the advertising of NHL products on my site. As one aptly put it, "they don't give a damn about we fans, and we shouldn't waste a single dime on their merchandise until they end this lockout".
Not that I was making a lot of money from advertising NHL products on my site, but I have to agree that it seems rather stupid to hawk their merchandise or to even purchase anything NHL-related while they deprive us of our game.
So until the lockout is ended and the NHL declares "Game On", I'm not going to post ads for NHL merchandise on my site. It's my almost insignificant way of saying, "up yours".
KEEP THE DISCOURSE CIVIL! I have no problem with folks disagreeing with my opinions posted here. It's a free country (well, Canada still is, I'm starting to seriously worry about our American cousins...) and freedom of speech and opinion will be honoured here. I won't edit any comments from my readers in my "Fans Speak Out" page when they disagee with my take.
The sole exceptions, however, are profanity and personally insulting comments. I like to consider this a "family-friendly" site, so I limit the profanity so that the youngsters can read this stuff without upsetting their parents.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a professional swearist in real life. My friends and I drop the "F-bomb" frequently in conversation, using it as a noun, verb, adverb, pronoun, and adjective. But I've found in life that if you wanna be taken seriously, you've got to express yourself in an intelligent manner, and as my mother always told me, "swearing always makes a person sound and look stupid". So I put limitations on profanity on this site.
As for insults, I fail to see the point in running down someone's opinion simply because you disagree with them. If you can't keep the responses to my comments or those of my contributing writers or your fellow fans civil, then don't waste our time because they won't appear on my site. Such is the power of being a pagemaster! Bwahh-hahahaha!
So it's here...the moment we NHL fans have long dreaded has finally arrived. At midnight last night,the NHL locked out the players and plunged the 2004-05 season into uncertainty.
Can't say we didn't see this coming, eh?
Gary Bettman and the NHL Board of Governors have brought down the darkness upon the NHL. In doing so, they might be setting up their own doomsday, their own endtime, their own personal armageddon.
What drives me nuts is the fact the league is doing this at the worst possible time, and pointing the finger of blame at the wrong party.
Interest in the NHL remains as strong as ever in Canada, but in the all-important US sports market, interest is perhaps at it's lowest in league history.
This lockout will barely register in the minds of US sports fans. Except in the few American cities and states where the NHL has carved out a small niche, nobody is going to miss the National Hockey League in the good ol' US of A.
When the World Cup of Hockey is outdrawn by re-runs of the World Series of Poker, it's obvious the National Hockey League is in big trouble in America.
And who do the NHL honchos blame? Their primary employees, the players.
As I said before, the players are an easy target. Over half of them pull in multi-million dollar salaries, while the remainder make tidy six-figure annual incomes, the lowest being just over $300,000.
Fans are pissed off over the fact some players stage contract holdouts to get even more millions, or spit on fan loyalty by bolting for the millions of dollars in the unrestricted free agent market.
I admit it's hard to keep my breakfast down whenever I read of someone like Scott Niedermayer, who's a millionaire many times over thanks to playing pro hockey for the New Jersey Devils, talk about how he needs more millions to ensure security for himself and his family and may bolt the Devils, the only team he's ever played for in the NHL, for a potential $45 million payday via the UFA market.
Geez, Scott, whaddya been spending your old millions on? Ermine-lined toilets seats? Motorized gold-plated salt and pepper shakers? Gold-trimed fly swatters with built-in digital scope sights? How many millions did you blow to put yourself in the position where you figure you'll need $45 million to ensure your family's security?
Sure, there's greed involved on the players side, but let's face facts, if there weren't greedy, wealthy owners willing to pay them millions and millions of dollars, we likely wouldn't be reading stories of players rejecting $40 million contract offers in favour of $45 million ones.
I've had many debates/discussions/arguments with fellow hockey fans who believe the players are the bad guys, but even they agree the one inescapable fact is that this situation is all of the owners making.
The owners paid the salaries, some of them even bragging about it. They did the end-runs around the entry-level salary cap by agreeing to pay rookies bonus clauses. They agreed to the arbitration awards. They paid out the huge salaries and got into the UFA bidding wars. They agreed to extend the current CBA back in 1997, when salaries leapt in two years from just over $700K to over $1 million and it was obvious the trend would continue and become a potential problem, because they wanted to get their greedy little mitts on $320 million in expansion fees.
They took a CBA that was structured in their favour and they made a mockery of it. Hell, NHL VP Bill Daly all but acknowledges that ownership bears the brunt of the blame and that some of them can't be trusted under a luxury tax system.
So what do the owners and the league believe is the solution?
Blame the players. The owners acknowledge they've made a mess, but want the players to clean it up.
And heaven knows the players are actually willing to try!
Yet even though the players are willing to give back five percent of their salaries throughout the life of their current contracts, according to NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow, are offering to close off bonus loopholes for rookies and further lower the rookie cap, are willing to accept tougher arbitration rules which will make it harder for players to achieve raises and even discuss the very luxury tax system they refused to discuss ten years ago, they're the ones perceived as the bad guys.
Some fans are sarcastically saying they "hope the players are happy" for the lockout taking place. Hey, folks, it's the owners who are locking out the players! It's not the players walking out on the league and refusing to bargain.
The union is willing to discuss anything except a cap. Their proposals, while not perfect, acknowledge that some NHL teams are in trouble and the NHL as a whole needs to cut their losses.
Perhaps it's just me, but after looking at the history of NHL labour negotiations, the state of the NHL since the 1995 CBA came into existance, and the issues presently on the table, I cannot understand how it's all the players fault for the league's lousy business practices.
So how long will this lockout last? Your guess is as good as mine, fellow hockey fan, but I have a sinking feeling that it won't be resolved in time to save the 2004-05 season.
What's the league's next move? There's already talk of "union-busting" whereby the league declares an impasse and unilaterally imposes their $31 million salary cap (and that's what it is, no more BS about "cost certainty", it's a hard salary cap, OK?).
If that somehow sails through the US courts, then the union will go on strike, thus the league will then hire replacement players and making a bad situation even worse.
Could this blow up in the league's face? You bet. The future of a few struggling clubs could be in jeopardy if an entire season is lost. European players might not return, especially if they recieve competitive bids from clubs in their home countries. A European "superleague" isn't out of the question, and if the NHL gets its $31 million cap it could leave itself open to competitive bidding and a gutting of their talent pool by such a rival league. Forget the WHA, the next true rival to the NHL's dominance will come from Europe, mark my words.
And of course, there's the potential hit to the league's fanbase, particularly in the United States.
Will the union cave if this goes too long? Sure, it's possible, but I think highly unlikely. The players had a lot more to lose ten years ago yet their resolve never waivered. Considering how much better prepared they are this time around, I doubt they'll waiver this time.
So where does that leave hockey fans? Out in the cold, somewhat miffed but not very angry. After all, I didn't see or hear of many large-scale protests by angry hockey fans. Either hockey fans as a whole are apathetic, or most likely, the majority are pinning their hopes on a January resolution.
But you know what? We'll find alternatives to the NHL. The AHL will likely get a higher profile on the Canadian sports networks. Being a Montreal Canadiens fan, I'd like to see how the much-touted Habs prospects are making out and this'll be a perfect opportunity to do so.
Hopefully there'll be some coverage of the European leagues, so that we can follow our favourite NHL'ers as they toil across the pond.
There's also the World Junior Hockey championships, and living in Prince Edward Island, I'll be checking out the QMJHL PEI Rockets and hopefully catching a glimpse of the highly-touted Sidney Crosby whenever he comes to town.
And yes, I'll continue to maintain my page and hopefully continue submitting articles to Foxsports. I intend to keep following the CBA trials and tribulations here in the Soapbox, turning it into a sort of daily weblog of CBA news, plus anything else hockey-related that strikes my fancy.
Bettman and company may be saying, "Armageddon outta here", but not me. I'm gonna stick around and see how this plays out.
And I hope you will too.
VE-E-E-R-R-RY INTERESTING: Read a recent report in The Hockey News that says the NHLPA staff won't be drawing salaries, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his staff will continue drawing theirs during the lockout.
Meanwhile, the league and the teams have been laying off employees in anticipation of the lockout. In a side note, there's a recent report noting the NHL has made $20 million of interest on their $300 million US warchest. The report (I can't for the life of me find it right now, but it's legit) wonders why the league didn't pay it's employees out of that interest, rather than laying them off and making life difficult.
But remember, it's the player's union wearing the black hats....
Folks have been asking me recently how I'm enjoying the World Cup of Hockey. I tell them it's good hockey, from what I've seen. What I'm not telling them is that I'm not bothering to see very much of it.
Not because I don't enjoy watching entertaining hockey involving the sports very best players, but because the tournament is jaded for me by the NHL's hell-bent desire to destroy itself.
As I've said many times, it's easy to put the blame on the players. Indeed, I used to buy into the "it's all the greedy players fault" argument. They're an easy target, given the very generous salaries they get paid. Nobody will have any sympathy for them, nor do I think they're actively seeking it. I agree it's sickening to see players staging holdouts for ridiculously high salaries or spitting on fan loyalty by pursuing more millions via unrestricted free agency.
But one thing I don't buy into is the argument that the players are the bad guys, who are being unfair, that their latest proposal was "a joke" and that they're determined to bring down the league to get what they want. That, folks, isn't backed up by the facts.
Sure, the players like the current CBA the way it is, because they've made a fortune off of it. But if they were unwilling to negotiate, they would simply say there's no point in changing the current CBA or would offer only a minor tweak or two to the current system. That's not what they're doing.
The NHLPA is making the most reasonable and flexible proposal. They're willing to give back a portion of their salaries for next season, close off entry-level contract loopholes and lower the rookie cap level, explore a more level field in the salary arbitration process, have suggested a revenue-sharing scheme, and most importantly, are willing to discuss a luxury tax system, something they were dead-set against ten years ago.
Obviously it's not a perfect proposal. The salary giveback could be more substantial than five percent and the luxury tax proposal could use some alterations, but the fact remains, the union is acknowledging there are teams losing money and are offering a system to help. What they're offering , as Al Strachan of the Toronto Sun noted, is a system that could be the framework for negotiating a better deal. Strachan noted the current NHLPA offer would save the NHL $120 million dollars, which would certainly bite deeply into the league's announced losses of $230 million for last season.
But it really didn't matter what the union offered the league, because if the NHLPA didn't agree to a cap system with salaries down to $31 million, it was going to be rejected by the NHL.
The league isn't willing to negotiate. They waited a year before making a counter-offer to the union's orginal proposal, using that interim to harp about "cost certainty" without shedding any light on the systems of implementation they had in mind, before finally making six proposals, all of which could be used as a hard cap.
At least the union was willing to take a week to examine two of the league's six proposals before rejecting them. The league refused to even consider what the union was offering.
The league put itself into this mess, folks. It was they who made a mockery of the entry-level cap system with their bonus clauses. It was they who refused to exercise their right to walk away from an arbitration award they didn't agree with. It was they who continued to pay the outrageous salaries over the past five years when their commissioner continually expressed concern over rising salaries and did nothing to check themselves. It was they who exploited the free agent system. It was they who refused to use the leverage they had under the current agreement. It was they who extended the current CBA not once but twice.
Oh, but it's the greedy player agents, Spector, who "exploited" and "took advantage" of the owners. The agents are the ones who exploited the loopholes, and the poor owners had no choice but to comply.
Nonsense! The owners didn't get to where they are today by being naive idiots. Not one of them look at an agent and said what they were seeking was ridiculous and they wouldn't pay. No, by their own admission, they did it because they go greedy and took the player's union for granted. Those traits are going to lead them to ruin.
I love the fact the league believes the current CBA no longer works and must be changed. Funny how they had no problem with it when salaries leaped from over $700K in 1995 to over $1 million by 1997. They claim on their website the reason it was extended back in 1997 was that "it was working the way it was intended to", but that's a crock.
Some claim that extension also had to do with Bettman's desire not to let anything interfere with his plans to ice NHL players in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, in order to increase the game's exposure in the US markets if Team USA played well.
That was part of several reasons, but the primary one remained the $320 million in expansion fees. Cash in hand is more enticing that hypothetical money
The real reason was the $320 million in expansion fees the league would collect from the Predators, Blue Jackets, Wild and Thrashers joining the league. To ensure those prospective team owners signed on, the NHL needed to ensure there would be no labour stoppage in 2000, which was when the current CBA was set to expire. It had nothing to do with the NHL's interpretation of how the current CBA was working and everything to do with those expansion bucks.
It was in 1999 when commissioner Gary Bettman first expressed concern and claimed changes would have to be made. Pity how his concern never translated into action to discourage free-spending teams from continuing to push salaries into the stratosphere.
Yeah, there was real concern from those clubs over the rise in salaries and how many teams were losing money. They wept crocodile tears while signing those big paycheques. Now we're supposed to believe the NHL when they claim teams like the NY Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, who were among the clubs that contributed to the rise in salaries, have lost money and need a new CBA to survive.
If they lost money, they put themselves in that situation, not the players. They didn't have to pay those salaries, but they did it willingly, even bragging about it.
Remember what Rangers GM Glen Sather said when he responded to the widespread acrimony directed at him when he obtained Alex Kovalev from the cash-strapped Pittsburgh Penguins in a deal so lopsided it should've been ruled null and void? He called it "free enterprise". So now he and his brethren aren't happy with free enterprise anymore? Can you say "hypocrite"? Of course, that's a tag that Slats has worn ever since he went from being champion of the small-market NHL teams as GM of the Edmonton Oilers to the free-spending GM of the NY Rangers.
I also love the argument that the players and their agents "hold teams hostage" by threatening holdouts or holding out to get what they want. That argument claims the teams have no choice but to bow to the player's demands because of the pressure they get from fans and media.
That, too, is a crock.
Look at the support the Ottawa Senators got back in 1999, when Alexei Yashin and his agent tried to break his contract to get a better deal, which would've set a dangerous precedent, by staging a year-long holdout. The fans and media were solidly behind the team, as was the NHL. Even the NHLPA kept their distance from the Yashin camp.
In the end, Yashin had no choice but to return to the Sens, play out the final year of his contract and play his best in order to maintain his marketability. The Sens then dealt him to the Islanders for Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza, a deal they clearly won and I think one most Isles fans would love to have back.
That's not the only example. In many cases when players threaten to stage or stage a holdout, the fans are usually behind the team, as are the local media. And in many cases, a holdout does more harm to the player than good, as they struggle to regain their form after missing valuable playing time.
Teams have it in their power to sign players to what they, not the player's agent, considers fair. The players get a lot of grief from fans about being greedy, and no doubt some of them are, but to suggest the owners aren't themselves touched by greed is simply denying the facts.
The owners, past and present, put themselves in this mess. They don't want a luxury tax system because, accord to NHL VP Bill Daly, they don't know what some teams will do in such a system. In other words, they want a system to save themselves from each other. They don't trust each other.
But will a salary cap achieve this? No, it won't, because just as the owners and player agents exploited loopholes in the current system, so they would under a cap system.
As Terry Frei of the Denver Post noted, the NBA and NFL cap systems, which NHL defenders tout as "working", do not. NBA teams find exception clauses to get themselves as high above the legal limit as possible, while NFL teams use "restructuring" deals ,which according to Frei involve "spreading out signing bonuses, front- and back-loading and even Enron accounting practices, " to go well above the hard cap while "technically" remaining within.
To expand further, Karen Price of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted that under the NFL's system, players with four year's service get to shop themselves as free agents once their contracts expire. While the NFL has a salary cap of $80.5 million (taking into account NFL teams have a 52-man roster), the Washington Redskins spent $50 million for signing bonuses for six players and their payroll sits over $110 million, a league record. So much for the much-vaunted NFL system.
The primary reasons why the NFL cap brings about parity is its free agent system, it's revenue-sharing, and of course the huge revenues brought in from local and national broadcasting contracts. The cap, when used properly, does work, but the fact teams are circumventing it renders it irrelevant. The only reason why the NFL hasn't sought changes to that system is because it's revenue-sharing and broadcasting contracts ensure their teams remain competitive, thus ensuring a healthier overall league which in turn keeps TV ratings up and TV dollars flowing.
As for the NBA, Price points out that all but four of their teams went over their "soft cap" system, noting the New York Knicks with their payroll of $84,523,891 sit nearly twice above the league cap of $45 million.
She does note, however, that "salaries go over the set percentage of basketball-related income, the players start giving back via the escrow system."
But as Terry Frei pointed out, there are so many "exception clauses" that it makes their cap system a farce. If it weren't for the escrow system, the NBA owners would be shrieking for change.
So do we really expect free-spending big-market NHL clubs not to engage in similar methods? Anyone who says no is either naive or simply ignorant of the truth.
Come on, does anyone really believe some NHL owners won't try to use the same tactics? Does anyone really believe that, this time, the actions of a few won't be copied by the rest?
The NHL hasn't even said how they'd enforce their "cost certainty". Obviously they'll now seek a hard cap if the NHLPA were to capitulate, so all the talk of "salary slotting" and "performance bonus plans" would fly out the window.
So how would they enforce it? How would they ensure teams don't spend over the cap, or find ways around it? Does anyone really believe teams with big payrolls, like Detroit and Toronto and Philadelphia and Colorado, will gut their rosters overnight to get down to that magical $31 million limit? Does anyone really believe that most NHL teams would still have enough money available to plug gaps in their rosters to snap up the supposed glut of affordable free agents who would glut the market as a result?
The NHL has no plan in place to penalize teams who spend over their $31 million cost certainty level. They have no method to ensure teams won't try to circumvent the cap. They must have a plan to "grandfather"the reduction of big market payrolls because the influential big market teams won't stand for gutting their rosters in one fell swoop. And with three-quarters of the 30 NHL clubs currently having payrolls well above $31 million, most of them wouldn't have any space on their payrolls to plug gaps in their rosters via free agency once they have dumped players to get down to that cap level.
At least with a luxury tax system, teams who go above a soft cap limit would be taxed on each dollar they go over that limit. If they made it dollar for dollar or even 50 cents for every dollar, it wouldn't entirely eliminate overspending, but it would be a strong deterrant, especially when those tax dollars get spread amongst the small market and lower payroll clubs, which would help them compete in the free agent markets. Even an escrow system along the lines of the NBA system could help bring down the league's losses.
But the league wants to crush the union, plain and simple. The union could've offered a luxury tax starting at 20 million and the league would've rejected it. They're not willing to negotiate or bargain, they simply want their way, period. They want to crush the NHLPA, rather than work with it.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post believes the NHL plans to cancel the upcoming season altogether by declaring a labour impasse, thus enabling them to unilaterally set that $31 million cap in time for the 2005 entry draft and 2005-06 season.
He believes if the courts uphold the NHL's decision, it'll force the union on strike, whereby the league might attempt to bring in replacement players for the 2005-06 season.
If the league does pursue that path, they're only trying to crush the players union, but also insult the intelligence of NHL fans, who aren't going to shell out over $200 per game for a family of four to truck out to see AHL and ECHL calibre players ply their wares while the best players are off playing in Europe or barnstorming North America or at home pursuing other interests.
And don't believe for a minute that the NHL teams will generously lower their ticket prices down to AHL and ECHL levels to bring back the fans. After all, they have to recoup their losses somehow, don't they?
A lengthy lockout by the league of its players comes at the wrong time. With roughly half the teams struggling at the gate and TV ratings almost non-existent thanks to the current ploddingly dull on-ice product, the NHL is making a precarious situation worse. If they pursue the scenario envisioned by Brooks, they'll all but ensure their demise.
As Strachan pointed out in a recent article, there's a possibility a lengthy lockout could give rise to a European "superleague", which could rob the NHL of many of it's best European players.
Strachan cited money availability, easier travel schedules, number of venues and competing broadcasting bids that could make such a league a viable rival to the NHL.
If the NHL teams shackle themselves with their hard-line cap, a rival European league would be able to bid competitively for the top NHL Euro talent. Strachan also points out that such a league could also tempt some of the top North American players if the talent pool and contracts were as good as the NHL product.
With that kind of potential competition, teams would be under tremendous pressure to find ways around a hard cap system to ensure they could retain their top European players. You can bet signing bonuses would see to that.
And don't believe for a minute the European players wouldn't use that kind of leverage to extract a better contract from their parent NHL clubs. Just ask fans of the Buffalo Sabres, who just saw defenceman Dmitri Kalinin use that very tactic to get a better deal, and that's without a rival European superleague in place.
A lengthy lockout will also likely spell the end for some NHL franchises. Some may be from teams who came into existance during the 1990s expansion boom, and some will likely come from teams with a lengthier history.
After all, if some owners claim they'll lose less money by shutting down rather than playing the upcoming season, how can they expect to remain viable under cost certainty?
It's all just so stupid, and that's why I believe the current NHL braintrust has learned nothing from their mistakes of the past. Rather than trying to achieve a working partnership with their players union to come up with a reasonable system, they're trying to burn down the village in order to save it.
Stupid, stupid, stupid....