Offer becomes more appealing if lockout continues

Updated: March 3, 2005, 9:04 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

The National Hockey League isn't about to throw its 30 teams into the ring like so many steers at auction, no matter how pleasing the image might be to jaded hockey fans.

Who are the investors?
The two principals in Game Plan International have extensive history in professional sports relocation and management.

According to materials provided by the company, Chairman Robert L. Caporale was an alternate governor and lawyer for the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1991-97. He also was general counsel for the World Hockey Association in the rebel league's final days and represented the four teams (Edmonton, Quebec, Hartford and Winnipeg) that merged with the NHL when the WHA folded after the 1979 season.

President Randel E.Vataha played in the NFL for seven seasons with New England and Green Bay and was a top member of the NFL players' association. He was a founding member of the USFL and was an agent for eight years with Bob Woolf and Associates.

The very fact that the NHL invited a group of deep-pocketed investors waving around $3.5 billion into their board of governors meeting in New York on Tuesday serves as yet another reminder of the league's condition.

Two companies spent a half-hour making their pitch. Wall Street equity giant Bain Capital Partners LLC has $17 billion in assets under management, according to its Web site. Game Plan International LLC is a Boston-based group that has served as financial advisor on the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Celtics and Ottawa Senators.

The likelihood of the NHL being sold to a single owner is admittedly very small, said league and team officials who attended the briefing.

"I didn't get the sense that people were flocking to this," the president of one small-market team told ESPN.com on Thursday.

Still, with no end in sight to the lockout, it is an option open to the owners.

"I was thrilled to hear it," he added.

An initial lukewarm reaction at this stage shouldn't come as a surprise, said an industry analyst familiar with both Bain Capital and Game Plan International. Such an offer could become very attractive to owners if it appears there is not a realistic chance of solving labor woes that saw the NHL become the first pro sports league to cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute.

"I think this is very real. They are very serious people with substantial assets," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a leading sports industry consulting firm based in Chicago.

"What it displays very clearly is that the National Hockey League, in Wall Street parlance, is in play," said Ganis, who predicted there will be similar offers made in the future.

In spite of losses the league claims are just under $500 million for the past two seasons, investors see potential in the league.

A single entity ownership would, in theory, be able to rectify the poor management by various teams and the league as a whole and prevent fractured labor relations.

According to Ganis, a new ownership group would simply open its doors and negotiate deals with players using a league-wide economic blueprint. There wouldn't be a need for a salary cap or a salary floor because the teams wouldn't be competing for players. The league would determine the marketplace and if the players didn't like the financial terms they could play somewhere else. It's a setup that would be more appealing to sponsors and television executives, Ganis predicted.

Inevitably, the financial structure would be far less lucrative for players than the previous NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement that saw players earn an average of $1.8 million, Ganis said. It would almost certainly be substantially less than league proposals made before the cancellation of the season that would have seen an average salary of about $1.3 million, he added.

Another ownership source said this group, which would operate the league like a large corporation, made much the same proposal to NHL owners last June.

"The idea has been out there," said Richard Peddie, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs, NBA Raptors and Air Canada Centre. "I can't speak for the other 29 teams, but the Leafs don't think it has legs. We're not in favor of it."

New Jersey Devils CEO president and general manager Lou Lamoriello agreed the chance of such a deal being accepted is remote.

Lamoriello said the NHL should focus on negotiating a settlement with the players in time to start the 2005-06 season on time.

"This presentation shouldn't upstage that in any way whatsoever," Lamoriello said.

The NHL offered no comment on the investment proposal other than to say it had been made. It would appear to be in the league's best interests to have the bid made public to act as a not-so-subtle warning to players that there are worse scenarios on the horizon than working out a deal with the current league bosses.

Still, Ganis insisted this isn't merely an exercise in trying to gain leverage by the league.

"I know the groups that made the offer. They are not being manipulated by the NHL," he said.

The players' association was dismissive of the initiative.

"Given that I have no first-hand knowledge of what was proposed, and since the NHL has expressed no interest in pursuing the offer, I see no reason to comment on it," senior director Ted Saskin said in a release.

But for owners, especially of small-market teams, who have seen their franchise values tumble in recent years, an average buyout of about $117 million might seem very attractive.

Although any split would not be that straightforward. The issues of building values and regional television rights, not to mention individual franchise values, would all have to be factored into the final amount each team would receive.

Just as the owners have warned players that their last offer was as good as it's going to get, top sports and entertainment lawyer Gordon Kirke wondered if the buyout proposal wouldn't be as good an offer as the NHL is likely to get given the current and long-term damage from the lockout.

"I think it's interesting how it's come full circle," Kirke said Thursday. "You'd have to look at it."

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, for instance, are awaiting league approval for a sale to California technology entrepreneur Henry Samueli and his wife, Susan, for a reported $75 million, a figure that includes a practice facility.

Given the lukewarm reception the proposal received, league officials seem to think all 30 teams would have to agree for this to work.

"I sure would so hope. We're not for sale," Peddie said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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