Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sports tragedy = the NHL 2004-05

The NHL set a new and awful precedent today by becoming the first major sports league to cancel a whole season due to labor problems. The NHL ownership took a very hard line in contract negotiations with the players' union, the NHLPA, and the NHLPA remained equally recalcitrant until the deadline for starting even a mini-season.

The ESPN story here notes the fundamental issue: the salary cap. The players continually rejected one, the owners claimed they needed to tether player salaries to league revenues. And the financial structure of the NHL indicated that the owners were right. The NHL's combined salaries were 75% of the revenues received by the 30 teams; that's far higher than the 63% in baseball, the 57%+ in basketball and the ~50% level in football. And none of the major sports' players are starving.

Plus, the players were unrealistic to begin with: first, they thought the fans were on their side. But hockey lacks a "devoted" fan base outside of Montreal, Toronto and parts of the northeast. Six years ago when the Dallas Stars were among the NHL's elite, and the Dallas Mavericks (NBA) were among the worst teams in that league, the local TV ratings for Mavs games averaged about 2.5 - 3.0; local ratings for Stars TV lagged at about a 0.8 rating (rating = 1% of households in the defined area). This phenomenon was typical in cities outside of the northeast that had both NBA and NHL franchises.

Low ratings meant low money -- the NBA and NFL have thrived on their fat TV contracts, the NHL could never obtain one. Instead, the NHL received only intermittent play on network TV, small TV contracts that would not even cover the highest-paid player on a given team, and had its playoff finals, the Stanley Cup, relegated in large part to cable TV (ESPN). These economics meant that the NHL had to REALLY milk their truest fans -- those who went to the games. Thus, the higher average price for NHL tickets viz. NBA tickets and the unhealthy reliance on attendance revenues by the teams.

Yet top players still wanted NBA-sized (or at least NFL-sized) contracts of $8M - $11M per year (Alexei Yashin, Mike Modano, Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Federov, Dominik Hasek) and next tier players wanted 3-4 mil per (Derian Hatcher, Ed Belfour, etc.). The NHL's economics couldn't afford that.

Ultimately, this falls on the players. Most of them are small-town guys from Canadian farming villages, America's frozen midwest (Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin), and the European hinterlands (Sweden, Finland, Czech Repub., Russia, Belarus) who lived a dream, left their small towns and played a kid's game of limited appeal for vast sums of money. They are the ones who are most hurt by having to play in Europe for a few grand per week (if they're lucky) instead of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars each year. They are the one who needed to make the concession for themselves and the players coming up the junior hockey ranks behind them and failed to begin bargaining to save the season until the last few days.

This is a terrible precedent in American team sports and may mark the beginning of the disintegration of the NHL, just as the NASL died a swift death just over two decades ago. Hope the players had fund while it lasted, they may have destroyed their economic bonanza for a failed principle.

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