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Just wondering: what do the new Maple Leaf owners truly believe about the ongoing labour talks…

It’s funny. I have zero “sympathy” for either side in what will soon become a bitter “labour” (insert the word monetary; it's always about money, regardless of what anyone says) dispute between the NHL owners and players.  I’ve promised I will (try to) write precious little here about the situation.  Let me just say that there will be the predictable sympathy-seeking  ‘spin’ thrown at us by both sides, who will seek to gain public support despite their obvious greed and excess.

Other than the fact that we love hockey and will miss not having it as part of our entertainment "menu", why should fans worry about how the huge financial pot gets divvied up?

The real truth is and the real “facts” are that both sides do fabulously well and it is the fans who pay the freight one way or another.  It's not just ticket prices.  It's merchandize, our significant and ongoing role in the money they make through media and advertising- and all the ways in which we contribute our time, devotion and money to making owners and players exceedingly well-off.  That’s all fine, but perhaps we could do with less bluster, less posturing and less obvious greed from the always grim-looming combatants.  (I mean, c'mon, we're talking about how to share billions of dollars, not people losing their jobs here. Why does everyone look so hard done by?)  Perhaps we can skip ahead to the part where we see these folks cut a deal that makes both sides happy.  Easier said than done, of course, but we fans sure make it easy on these guys.  That's because they know (and history shows...) that, no matter how we, the fans, are treated, we keep coming back for more, one way or another.

In any event, this was not intended as a soliloquy on my frustration with the likely lockout ahead, so I’ll move on to my real point today, which is simply this:  I wonder if the new owners at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment—the required public show of togetherness with their fellow NHL owners aside—would actually prefer a very different “system” than what Bettman is proposing.  By that I mean, one with no cap and less overall silliness. An agreement that, just as in baseball with the high-revenue teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, etc., would allow well-off franchises to spend whatever they wish in trying to build a winner.

In a way, we’d be going back to the old days of hockey where there is no cap and teams can spend as much or as little as they want.  But maybe if the owners were willing to live in a cap-free world again, the players would give on, say, free-agency at the age of 25 or whatever it is now.  That's a huge thing right now.  Teams are so afraid to lose their best young players to early free-agency. If those teams knew they “controlled” players much longer, they would likely not have to pay as much to get them, develop them and keep them, for fear of losing their desirable players as a RFA or UFA.

I’m dreaming, I guess.

Here’s my problem (and it may be just me): as a sports fan, I’ve pretty much given up on the notion of equity and fairness in pro sports.  I guess it could be argued that those principles works to some degree in the NFL with their revenue-sharing, linked of course to massive TV revenue.  (That said, even the NFL takes it out on somebody—former players, for example, can’t get anything near what they deserve in their pensions.  And the current NFL game officials are on strike because the league won’t pay them what they need to.  Can you imagine?  A league that relies on the sound judgment and experience of officials is willing to embarrass itself by utilizing under-prepared, ill-equipped substitutes who have no clue on the field.  And they will be, in part, deciding the outcome of NFL games.  Heck, Drew Brees and a few of his highly-paid pals could probably contribute two weeks’ salary and this officials strike could be “solved” in no time.  Or, one of the owners could dip into his own pocket and spend a little less on expensive lunches to make up the difference in negotiations…)

But to my point:  there is no justice, no fairness, so what does it matter anymore anyway?  The NBA, for example, has become a league where only two or three teams have a legitimate shot (Miami, the Lakers and whoever is left) at winning every year.  Yet people pay to see 25 teams play for basically nothing every year, all season long.  In baseball, the Yankees are at the top every season because they can spend whatever they want.  Like an eclipse, every once in a while a team like the Pirates or Twins or Tampa Bay have enough young players (developed after years of drafting high) to compete, but then they lose them all in free agency.  It’s the circle of life in sports these days.

And in the NHL, do we all remember when the last agreement was supposed to make things sane again?  Getting spending back under control- wasn't that the name of the game?  That has hardly happened. The cap keeps going up, so do salaries, yet there are sill a number of teams who can barely afford to even spend to the bottom end of the cap floor, so again I say: I give up.  Might as well forget the whole pretense of competitive balance and “cost certainty” (that favorite phrase from the last go-round) and just let teams fight it out like the old-time wild, wild west.

Or simply make things the way they used to be in the NHL, when we had wealthy teams, poor teams, and still had franchises that couldn't survive financially- just like we do now.

If they were allowed to, maybe the new Leaf owners would actually  spend their mega-dollars and distance themselves from the pack, just like the wealthy franchises do in soccer in England in the Premier League.  Manchester City was nothing compared with Man United until a new owner came in and spent huge amounts of dough.  The Leafs have always had the money—they just haven’t always been willing to part with it, even in the pre-cap days.

If there was no cap, there would be no way for ownership to pretend.  Leaf fans in the current climate would insist on the best squad money could buy.  The owners would have to  make the market attractive to any prospective NHL player looking for a possible home. (Again, as I’ve said before, I believe GM’s in Toronto have always wanted to win.  I’m not one hundred per cent certain ownership from the early 1970s on has always had the same objective, though…)

Am I being contradictory?  Yes, for sure.  I hate these ridiculously high salaries.  To me, athletes simply do not deserve them, but in a world where entertainment helps keep us all a little less stir-crazy, we fans enable a system where these guys all think they deserve to make millions upon millions year after year so they and their great, great, great grand-children can be be “secure”.  But I’m just as annoyed with the silliness of the league owners, who cry poor and then (sometimes for legitimate reasons, like feeling the pressure to be competitive) spend silly money on players.

Not to pick on Carolina, but I’m sure we’ll hear them say the “system” needs to be changed, yet they have just spent mad money this summer.  It never ends….first one franchise, then another.

I fear the NHL is becoming more and more like the NBA and baseball, where teams always end up talking about having to rid themselves of “bad contracts” that they themselves handed out gleefully just a year or two before.  But again, the fan in me who has given up on the ideals of what pro sports ought to be, and sees what it has inexorably become over the last 40 years, goes:  whatever.  Let the new Leaf owners pay a hundred million a year in salaries.  Charge 500 dollars a ticket (maybe they already do—I sure can’t afford tickets anyway…) for all I care and become one of four or five teams that at least have a legitimate shot every year at the Cup because they can afford the money to pay these guys the ridiculous contracts that the players all want.

I wish it wasn’t this way, but it clearly is, eh?  So I'll throw my hands up in the air and give up.

Here’s what I wonder:  recognizing that, publicly, the new MLSE owners have to be publicly linked at the hip with their fellow NHL owners, what do they - privately - really and truly feel?  Do they wish they could spend as much as they want to, knowing they would still make huge profits because they'd own a more successful team- and cash in through higher ticket prices, local TV revenues, merchandising, playoff revenues, etc.?

What say you?


  1. Michael,

    With respect to MLSE. I think that the only answer is which scenario would make them the most money. Do they make more if they are in the playoffs every year being allowed to spend $100 million plus? Or do they make more with a cap and almost spending to it? Perhaps we could ask for their accounting statements and have them audited.

    I am not sure that they have much room to increase ticket prices. I can't afford to go, you can't afford to go. Companies I have heard are starting to cut back on these frivolous expenses as times have got-ten a little less prosperous.

    It is clear that every game missed, is a huge pain in the wallet for the owners of the most profitable teams. Toronto is certainly one of those, so they must be screaming to get this done. They lose all the TV revenue now as well since I suspect a lot of other programming was going to be rolled out on TSN and Sportsnet.

    It hurts my brain to try and figure out what the NHL plan is going forward after the lockout. There are at least 6 teams that lose gobs of money. $30 million a year, I hear in all the papers. How are these weak sisters ever going to be a positive revenue stream for the league? Aren't they always going to need to be saved? Lets be honest, the people who live in these markets just don't care about hockey. And have proven that over the course of time. Are we doomed to hear about how broken the system is that Phoenix is not viable, until hell freezes over?

    I don't believe the economics of the NHL is broken. I believe that they don't work in these specific places, and never will. Pretty much no matter what the players give up every time the CBA is up. As soon as they sign this agreement there will still be the same teams losing about the same amount of money as they do now. The more things change the more they remain the same.

    Do you think the owners would go for a two tiered league, like happens in English soccer. If you stink, you get relegated. No cap in the main league. Maybe they could play exhibitions against the bottom feeders. Yes, I am aware that at this time the Leafs would be relegated. It might humble up the Burkie a little. I like this idea more and more. They would be back soon enough, once the shackles of financial restraint had been removed.

    I think that unless the League financially helps out the lesser lights so that they at least have a chance at profitability. We are doomed to relive this lockout mess, over and over, forever. Rich people crying that they can't possibly get by on the millions that they have, and the millions that they are going to get.

  2. I think you're right, Jim. Regardless of the economic "system" or model that is crafted, some markets just won't thrive. The same old debating points will get trotted out and the same old franchises will struggle.

    I have to believe MLSE would prefer a no-cap system, one that would allow them to spend - and make - even more.

    Well said, thanks Jim.

  3. Hi Michael,

    I may be delusional, however, unlike the outgoing owners I believe that the new group would like their sports franchises to be successful. They need to drive viewers to their networks.

    I also believe that the Leafs do not have much influence amongst the owners. There seems to be a cabal that runs things and Toronto is not a part of it. Guys like Jeremy Jacobs, who just about destroyed hockey in Boston, Craig Leipold, Phil Anschutz and Ed Snider appear to call the shots. Too bad Bill Wirtz is gone, he could advise them on fan relations.

    So, while I am sure that the Torontos, New Yorks and Montreals would rather be done with the cap, I don't think it matters. By the time this is over I fear that it will be like the NBA where nobody has a clue as to what you can and cannot do.

  4. You're right on the money, cbh747. There does seem to be (and it has been this way for decades, actually) a small core of owners who run the show. Even in the old six-team days, a small group seemingly had more influence than other owners (Norris family, etc.).

    Thanks, by the way, for your comment regarding the senior Wirtz. My chuckle for the day...