Pssst -- pass it on: Image is more important than ever these days. It's why
Las Vegas is the motherland of breast implants and tattoos, why David Gest
put up with all those "beatings" at the hands of Liza Minnelli, and why
somebody acquiesced to Mariah Carey's request for a movie role.
Image also rules the roost in the pro sports industry, although you'd never
know it if you set up a tent at the NHL Players' Association camp. There,
what matters most are principles. Sure, they're outdated and misguided
principles, they're principles counterproductive to the growth and
sustainability of the game, but they're principles nonetheless.
For an example, look no further than the Stanley Cup final, where the
small-market Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning decided NHL supremacy.
It made for a thrilling matchup between two young teams with the potential
to be perennial championship contenders, but it also provided grist for the
burgeoning mill that is the labor war rhetoric-o-matic.
Here's how the argument goes: The Flames and Lightning put together
championship-caliber teams on relatively stingy budgets, so the current
collective bargaining agreement is as okey-dokey as okey-dokey gets. It's
the owners who are the problem, say the players, their spend-happy
tendencies burying them under a mass of debt and dissolution. Owners bad,
players good, is how the argument goes.
If only it were that simple. If only you were able to run sports leagues as
you would any other industry. If only the "vive le free market!" speeches
and burning effigies of the guy who invented the salary cap were a benefit
to Joe Fan and his beloved team.
Trouble is, the reality of pro sports is anything but cut-and-dried. And all
you have to do to recognize what works and what doesn't work in sports is
take a gander at the NHL's competition -- specifically, how they shape the
image of their product.
Said gander reveals that the NFL and NBA, the two most profitable of the
"big four" sports organizations in North America, both have a salary cap as
part of their labor deals. Major League Baseball and the NHL, the two least
profitable leagues, do not. Of course, a salary cap isn't the sole
determinant of the pecking order, but it is no coincidence the leagues that
have the appearance -- the image -- of a level playing field are more
appreciated by fans than the ones that don't.
And remember, image is what matters most. Forget about how each season in
each league winds up shaking out -- the success of the Florida Marlins and
Minnesota Wild are proof positive we "experts" rarely have a clue -- what is
most important is how each team is regarded at the start of the season.
That's when season tickets are sold. That's when fans in every city gauge
their team's chances to contend. That's when word-of-mouth spreads the
What words do you think come out of the mouths of Kansas City Royals fans at
the start of the season? Or Pittsburgh Penguins fans? Or Edmonton Oilers
fans? Or all seventeen remaining Montreal Expos fans? Do you think some
select four-letter words are in the mix? Do you think those fans map out the
parade route at the start of the season, or are they preparing farewell
signs for high-priced players destined to be traded halfway through the
schedule to their Nielsen ratings-dominating cousins?
That's why no follower of baseball is surprised that, even 10 years after a
work stoppage -- one that ended with the institution of a luxury tax that
only George Steinbrenner and the U.S. military-industrial complex could hope
to breach -- the sport still is having trouble bringing back the fans it
Small-and-medium-market baseball teams remain a feeder system to their
financial betters. Successful baseball players inevitably wind up changing
uniforms, effectively killing long-term fan interest in the poorer
franchises. And the vicious circle (can't draw fans without good players,
can't get good players without drawing fans) continues apace, until teams
are forced to look at moving to other cities, cities whose fans haven't been
corrupted by the bottom line.
We'd warn against the likelihood of a similar fate for the NHL, only the
process has already started. The Penguins draw crowds that suggest every
night at the Igloo is sponsored by the Ebola virus, while the Florida
Panthers couldn't sell out the house if they had a U.S. green card stapled
to each ticket.
Both cities once were prosperous for the NHL, but now both teeter on the
brink of irrelevance. Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals held their own
Marlin-ish fire sale this year, clearing the decks of almost every
recognizable name on the roster and banning the words "Jaromir" and "Jagr"
from being used outside of the telling of cautionary tales. The more the NHL
resembles baseball, the more frightened hockey fans should be.
This isn't to say leagues with salary caps don't face their own challenges.
The days of NFL dynasties such as the 70s-era Steelers and the 80s-era 49ers
are long gone (although we'd argue free agency itself stuck the dagger in
that particular chest), while the Byzantine rules of the NBA's cap would
stump Stephen Hawking. But the same things that anti-cap types suggest make
the real difference between winner and loser (scouting, player development)
are just as crucial in leagues with caps.
The one difference? Under a cap, teams can't overpay in an attempt to
mollify their restless, angry fans, driving ticket prices through the roof
and setting contract benchmarks that manifest themselves in deals such as
Alexei Yashin's (10 years, $87.5 million), the most money handed to a pooch
since Hanna-Barbera inked a movie deal for Scooby-Doo.
In essence, what NHLPA head Bob Goodenow is proposing -- basically, a
scaled-back continuation of the current system -- amounts to the continued
cannibalization of the league. The union's vision fails to accept the
reality that a league is only as strong as its worst team, that even the
perception of weakness in a particular market is enough to cut the legs out
from underneath an expanding fan base.
A similar labor showdown in baseball was resolved with a system NHLers are
angling for, a solution universally acknowledged as a win for the baseball
player's union. But it hasn't translated as a win for baseball fans who
don't reside in a major metropolis, and that's precisely the point.
Because ultimately, the NHL's next labor agreement isn't about the players.
It isn't about ownership. It isn't even about the ticket-takers or
It is about the fans. How to draw them in. How to cultivate their patronage.
How to stabilize the league's membership from the bottom up.
Given the option of the current system or an NBA-style soft cap, the choice
is clear. A league with a salary cap isn't perfect and won't always be fair,
but it is far less imperfect and much less unfair -- to the people that pay
the freight, that is -- than the one we're stuck with now.
E-mail Adam Proteau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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