Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Well, with the lights going out on the World Cup of Hockey, the NHL ownership has officially locked out the players. So begins what will be the most acrimonious labor dispute in professional sports history, easily surpassing the NFL's 1987 lockout and the infamous baseball lockout of 1994, which spiked the World Series for the first time in 90 years.
The current estimate is that the entire 2004-2005 NHL season will be wash. That means not one single pre-season, season or post-season game will be played.
Which is too bad. Not for us, but for the game of hockey. Because they have decided to ignore a simple truth: most people don't care about hockey.
Now that is anathema to people like myself (grew up in New England) who are weaned on the sport from the time we can walk. But let's face facts:
- It's not nationally popular: A brutal truth to be sure, but an accurate one. As detailed here, the 2004 Conference Finals were out-drawn in tv viewership by the Indianapolis 500 time trials. Time trials! And it's not even NASCAR!
- Their TV contracts are lousy: The big money for team sports is found in the television contracts they put out for bid. The NFL TV deal brings each team around $80 million dollars per year in national contracts alone. The NHL? A measly $14.9 million per team. Why? No one watches.
- The rules are difficult for a causal viewer to follow:Offsides, icing, red lines, blue lines, sticks above the waist touching the puck. It's not a "newbie" friendly game.
- Hockey venues are limited in revenue generation: Maybe, if a team is lucky, they have 20,000 seats to fill for their 41 home games. Baseball stadiums have b/t 35,000 - 76,000 seats for 81 home games. True, basketball teams have similar demographics and NFL franchises have 60,000+ seat stadiums for only 8 home games. But these two sports have salary caps and other devices to preserve fiscal sanity.
- It's hard to build a fan base:Kids can easily grow up playing baseball, football and basketball. All you need is the ball, a minimal amount of equipment, and an open field (or one of the billion basketball courts found in every city and town). But hockey needs ice. And sticks. And pucks. And pads. And goals. It's an expensive game. If kids can't just play it when they want, it's going to be harder to draw them in and have them grow up with the game.
- Players are delusional over their salaries: This is the big one. Here is the stat you need to know: $2,300,000 - $1,830,126. The first number is the average salary for a baseball player. The second is the average salary of a hockey player. That is a difference of roughly $500,000. Baseball teams play twice as many home games in front of crowds easily twice the size of hockey crowds. There is no way that the average hockey salary should be that close. The vast difference in revenue generation demands it.
And that is the real problem. Yes, baseball salaries are out of control, and one day that will become an issue. But not today. The game schedule and seating provide adequate revenue growth, along with the luxury tax. But hockey? The sport as a whole lost $273 million in 2002-2003. Only six teams turned a profit, averaging a measly $6.4 million. Player salaries consume 75% of total league revenues. You simply cannot function in that manner.
And believe me, I am not letting the owners off the hook here. They have made some ludicrous bids for players (hello, Tom Hicks) that sent wages out of control.
But the players and their agents are equally to fault for that problem. The agents put one team against another to sign their player, who holds out for the most money. And without an artificial barrier to control the process, you end up with the fiscal disaster that is the NHL.
The fact is that this league needs a cap. No one seems to be able to control their lust for money. I am sure players look at the other leagues and wonder why they can't be paid the same. It's simple: your sport simply isn't popular enough to sustain that kind of spending. Deal with it. But we also need a cap to save the owners from themselves. Too often they preach fiscal control while spending hand over fist.
But that isn't enough. With only a cap, the inequity that currently exists would only reverse itself. Owners would pocket the vast majority of revenues and players would get the short end of the stick. Some other mechanism needs to be built in. Be it a "Larry Bird" exemption-type rule or the "franchise player" designation the NFL uses. Maybe a rule that would allow unlimited contracts for players who were originally drafted by the team, while traded players and free-agent signees must fit into the salary-cap structure.
Or maybe the pipe dream. Lower ticket prices so regular fans could attend hockey games once more without emptying their wallets. Sadly, there's a better chance of hockey being played in October than that happening.
But neither side will budge. And so we find ourselves on the verge of a hockey-free season.
The danger is that the owners and player may find out we don't really have a problem with that.
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