Hockey stars v. owners: Fans lose this game

Barring a miracle, a strike or lockout will wipe out much or all of the 2004-2005 season…Mr. Dowbiggin is charitable to a fault with the agents, some of whom he greatly admires. His broad sympathies lie with the players, if for no other reason than they have been less stupid than the owners, although no less greedy.

The Globe and Mail
October 29, 2003

Hockey stars v. owners: Fans lose this game
Jeffrey Simpson

CALGARY — Before the last National Hockey League season, 91 players made more than $3-million, and 346 earned at least $1-million. Players' salaries skyrocketed sevenfold in a decade. No wonder commissioner Gary Bettman bemoans the economics of hockey.

Mr. Bettman is right. He and the NHL owners, however, are largely to blame for hockey's economic woes, according to Calgary Herald columnist Bruce Dowbiggin whose book, Money Players, should be mandatory reading for serious hockey fans. It will be, alas, a depressing read.

Barring a miracle, a strike or lockout will wipe out much or all of the 2004-2005 season. The current collective bargaining agreement ends in mid-September, 2004. Owners and players have dug in for the mother of all labour battles. The owners have levied a tithe on themselves to prepare for the lost season; the players have also assessed themselves and managed to amass millions of dollars, tax-free, through the sale of hockey cards, something Revenue Canada has permitted.

Mr. Dowbiggin has been writing intelligently and lucidly about hockey for a long time. Money Players displays both his knowledge and clear writing. It's the best book on hockey since Roy MacGregor's Road Games in 1994.

How things have changed since Mr. MacGregor's book. Salaries were just starting their explosion. The players had finally ridded themselves of the crooked and supine leader, Alan Eagleson. Four expansion teams had been added, putting millions of dollars into owners' pockets. New arenas were sprouting, many of them publicly subsidized in the supposedly free-enterprise United States.

The seeds of today's problems were sowed in those years. The subsidized buildings and expansion fees produced new revenues for owners alright, but in their rush to compete, they heaped wildly unjustified salaries on players.

It only took a handful of owners to spoil the economics for everyone else. Once rich/stupid owners bid up the cost of labour, arbitrators had new standards by which to drive up other salaries. As Mr. Dowbiggin shows, the NHL Players' Association scheduled its best cases first in the annual arbitration sweepstakes, thereby setting ever-higher yearly markers.

The players captured most of the "rent," as economists would call it, from all this free money the owners' found. The owners were incapable of restraining themselves, in part because players can form an association, but the owners cannot set collective pay policies lest they be accused of collusion.

Ordinary fans, of course, were the big losers. Ticket prices soared beyond the reach of all but the rich or the supremely dedicated. It's a recipe for turning off the next generation of fans, a dangerous prospect for a league more dependent on revenues from tickets than the other major professional leagues.

Hockey degenerated into defensive snoozefests, full of endless icings, clutching, grabbing, interference and generally boring play. Coaches, afraid of being fired, resorted to this strategy to keep their jobs. The Stanley Cup finals last year epitomized stifling defence. Terrible television ratings told the story. In reply, the league took the audacious step of measuring the goalies' equipment.

Every other league has addressed problems of dull play. Not the NHL, professional sports' most hidebound league, with no effective revenue-sharing, an aversion to change, and a labour-management mentality that makes Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove and the president of General Motors seem like boon companions.

The NHL claims to have lost $300-million last year, a figure the players' association disputes. Mr. Dowbiggin reports, however, that a fan skeptical of the losses reported by the Los Angeles Kings got total access to the King's books. The trained accountant wound up sustaining the Kings' argument.

Many NHL teams have serious attendance problems. Thousands of empty seats regularly stare down at the players. The franchises with problems systemically pad their publicly announced attendance figures.
Mr. Dowbiggin is charitable to a fault with the agents, some of whom he greatly admires. His broad sympathies lie with the players, if for no other reason than they have been less stupid than the owners, although no less greedy. Lost in his account is much about poor old Joe Fan.

The owners want "cost certainty" through some kind of salary cap. This means they seek an agreement that imposes a discipline they cannot impose on themselves. They know the next U.S. television contract will be a bummer, because ratings are so bad. The value of their franchises has plummeted in many markets. The players, of course, want few adjustments to the status quo so their staggering gains can be protected. The union wants a free market; the owners a form of socialism.

Read Mr. Dowbiggin's book. Understand what's happening to Canada's national game. Then weep.

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