my pissant two cents

Friday, December 10, 2004

game on?

i'm a hockey freak. i will watch hockey all day long, then go play all night long. and i gotta tell ya, this freakin' lock-out is killing me. it's been 86 days, 386 games, and the all star game gone to waste. and i'm dying.

i am looking with a little hope and a little fear at the proposal the players union gave the owners yesterday. it's 236 pages long, and has give-backs all over the joint, but the big issue is a 24% pay cut across the board. they say that will save the owners more than half a billion dollars over the next three years. the owners have claimed losing nearly two billion over the past ten years.

the numbers have been the core of the dispute. the owners claim they will lose less money by not playing during the lockout than they would if they did play. the union claims that the owners are doctoring the numbers in their favor, primarily by picking and choosing what they consider income. for example, the anschutz people who own the los angeles kings also own the staples center. what, if any, of the income from the staples center is attributed to the kings? only the accountants know....

the givebacks are a lesson in monopoly economics. it's all very simple. the nhl is the only game in town. although many players have gone to europe to play while the union and the owners have ignored each other, the pay is much lower and the competition not as challenging. in short, there's only one way to play, and it's the owners' way.

the union realized that, apparently, when they made the proposal that not only gives back 1/4 of the payroll, it also caps rookie salaries and performance bonuses. it also establishes a rather punitive payroll tax, whereby teams that spend more than $45 million on payroll pay as much as 70 cents on the dollar into a fund that gets distributed among the teams at the low end of the revenue scale.

will that be enough to get the owners to unlock the arenas? maybe. but the demand up to now has been for a salary cap. nothing short of that has been acceptable. commissioner gary bettman has been just short of spitting on previous union attempts to negotiate, holding doggedly to his salary cap demand, which he couches in terms of "cost certainty." but there seems to be some wiggle room now.

not that there isn't plenty to be steamed at the owners about.... let's not forget that they're the ones bidding on players and jacking up salaries. they also did not think far enough ahead when they expanded to 30 teams. some of the teams, like san jose, minnesota and tampa bay, have been pretty successful on the ice and on the spreadsheet. others, like florida, carolina and atlanta, have not done so well. it's those unsuccessful franchises, more than the weak canadian dollar or small-market teams, that are bringing the league down. combine that with the wild spending of teams like detroit and the new york rangers, and the haves and have-nots aren't even within shouting distance of one another.

the lesson to be taken, i think, is that expansion is a cruel bitch goddess. you can't really control it, but the appeal is so strong, especially when franchise fees get passed around. apparently, the first atlanta franchise should have been a good clue; they left town about 20 years ago and relocated to calgary. and maybe florida's not big enough for two hockey teams. carolina's owner was among those saying that he'll actually save money during the lockout. want to save more? fold the team.

the players vented some frustration in the past few days. phoenix player rep shane doan told the vancouver province that bettman's quest for cost certainty is an attempt to save his job. detroit's kris draper told the toronto sun that league expansion has priced the league out of its own reach, and now bettman wants the players to fix it.

bettman called it sour grapes.

but now the players have done their part. a 25% pay cut is a lot. even if you make $8 million a year. and bear in mind, not a whole lot of players make that much. bear in mind further that they are one shift, one trip, one awkward fall into the board away from a career-ending injury. so they are not exactly collecting free money. the work and dedication it takes to get and maintain an nhl career is nothing to sneeze at. you don't think it's hard? watch a college game, or a minor league game (lord knows i have, just to satisfy my jones in these three bitter months). there's no comparison.

the price of the owners' holding onto an all-or-nothing position may be more than a few shekels this year. it may take a long, long time to get back the goodwill of the fans. there is a small but hardcore fan base in the u.s. they were built in the post "miracle on ice" years, they watched the league grow with gretzky, and they gave a good look at expansion. then, after a stellar, epic 1994 stanley cup final between the rangers and the vancouver canucks. east vs. west, u.s. vs. canada, bruisers vs. rockets, they had the lock out. all that interest and excitement, and the league pissed it away.

calgary vs. tampa was not exactly that kind of finale, but it was a first cup for a franchise team in the sunbelt, and a gutty, tooth-and-nail battle for a small-market canadian team. old-time hockey. it took the league a long time to recover from the '94 lockout.

losing this season could very well prove fatal to all but the hardiest of fans. and teams.


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