- Chris Sprow
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Teaching fair business practices to the commissioner of a North American sports league is sort of like bringing in William Safire to teach proper grammar to a group of third graders.
It's not that there's nothing valuable to impart. It's that for these guys, the rules don't all apply just yet.
We've allowed these leagues -- we're looking at you, NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA and yes, even you the NCAA -- to play business at a third grade level long enough. If an adult ran a government granted monopoly or cartel, you might take issue with it. If a third grader did, however, you might not only think it's cute, but practically ingenious. "Joey isn't playing by the rules yet, honey, but can you believe it, a cartel!"
So it only figures that this week, when Jim Balsillie, the guy who runs the company that makes Blackberry's (not the fruit, the crack), tried to swoop in and buy the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes, the heads of other leagues threw their support behind NHL Commish Gary Bettman.
Sure, the deal has some quirks to it. Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes is running red ink elsewhere in his business formerly-known-as-an-empire, and he's taking a Canadian bailout, for all intents and purposes. But it's still ostensibly his team to sell. Of course, it was Bettman's oversight that allowed the league to vastly over-expand in the first place, and strip good Canadian homes such as Quebec (Colorado) and Winnipeg (Phoenix) of their franchises so the NHL could bask in some temporary Southern comfort. Problem is, southern franchises like Nashville, the Florida teams and Phoenix have been running red ink for years, and now rely on a salary capped league and other machinations to pay the bills. In Phoenix, apparently bills haven't been paid at all. And the fans are admittedly apathetic.
Lest you think sending the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario (pop: roughly 500,000) is such a bad thing, a charity act running in the face of sound business, check out the current ESPN The Magazine. You'll see that in Bettman's league, the best TV deals the league has in terms of total value are for Candadian-based TV networks! The three-year Versus deal ($217.5) million is less than the current pact with the CBC ($550 million) and not much more on a gross level than the 6-year TSN pact ($200 million).
For a league that supports 417 players earning a million bucks a year -- compared to 432 in MLB and 372 in the NBA, leagues where the TV contracts go well into the billions -- you'd think the NHL would want to at least give a bad franchise a chance to succeed. This isn't highway robbery with a splash of public extortion like David Stern and Clay Bennett pulled in Seattle, it's a model that was flawed to begin with.
You'd think the league would re-connect with some good sense. Or better yet, its roots.
But that's if you played by normal business rules. In pro sports, antitrust laws and all those other annoying little maxims that the rest of us subscribe to are more like good grammar to a third grader. You could use it -- if you knew what it was.
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