Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Follies on Ice

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:

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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