Thursday, February 17, 2005

Sunrise, Sunset

Kind of spooky: just as Spring Training opened, kicking off the renewal ritual which is baseball, the door slammed shut on the hockey season.

The loss of the 2004-2005 NHL season is a gut punch to a league that was already going under faster than the Titanic. For professional hockey's future, it's pretty scary that the overwhelming reaction has been indifference. Fans seemed disappointed, but resigned to the idea of losing this season. If I was a TV executive, seeing how well the NHL's fans are taking this lockout, I'd never invest a single red penny in the sport, ever again.

During the baseball strike of '94, you had people cursing and yelling and swearing that they'd never go to the ballpark again (ten years later, I wonder how many of those oaths have held?). Sure, it was anger and negative press, but at least you could tell that there was passion on the subject. Baseball fans had a pulse.

Now, part of the reason that hockey fans aren't rioting in the streets is because of a pretty good PR campaign, by the owners, about how completely unprofitable their business is. Lots of fans have been so keyed with stories of the NHL's financial woes, that they seem to be saying, "Well, if this is what needs to happen for hockey to survive, so be it. A plague on both their houses, for not getting this thing done."

I can see their point. Unlike baseball, I don't doubt that a good number of hockey franchises are really hurting, financially. Ten years ago, after the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, there was a wave of what Alan Greenspan would call "irrational exuberance" about hockey. I remember FOX getting all excited because they got the NHL's broadcast rights, and they were going to "change the game" with their glowing puck concept.

Please, don't ask.

Since then, the ratings tanked, and you now have a pretty hard time finding NHL hockey anywhere on the dial. There are a ton of culprits: the neutral zone defense, reckless expansion, and teams moving across the border as the Canadian Dollar weakened, to name a few.

But a plague on both their houses? It's nuts. This is a lockout, not a strike--the players didn't walk off the job, the owners simply decided not to open up shop until they'd wrung a few concessions out of the guys. According to reports, the players offered to cut back on their existing contracts by 24%, plus a salary cap. You remember that $4 Million contract we signed last year. Here, take a million back, I don't need it.

I've never heard of such a thing. Every other labor negotiation I've ever followed, the contracts that were already signed were grandfathered in (like Shaq's contract in the NBA). It's shocking that the owners were willing to turn that offer down.

For some reason, sports fans are cockeyed when it comes to labor problems. Unlike labor battles everywhere else, we sympathize with the owners (poor boys, having to pay all that money!) and we get angry with the laborers (probably because we mind when our peers get paid a few thousand times more money than we do).

Focusing just on our inexplicable good will toward management, I don't get it. By and large people don't suffer fools. But when a bunch of sports team owners screw up--expanding too fast, dishing out salaries they can't afford--we get watery-eyed. Those nasty players should give those nice owners a salary cap! Can't you see that otherwise they'll spend themselves to death?

This good hearted tendency to want to save people from themselves isn't generally applied to folks in bankruptcy or drug addicts or people on the dole, just to sports team owners. When our spendthrift friend (and generally speaking, if you don't think you have a friend who can't handle their money, then you are that friend) blows their whole paycheck on an insane shopping spree, we never say, "Macy's should give you a 24% discount on all that stuff you bought. Couldn't they see you can't afford it?" or "They should really have a limit on how much you can buy at their store, y'know, to keep stuff like this from happening!"

Every sports contract, no matter how stupid it seemed at the time or now in retrospect, was signed by a team owner willingly. Sometimes eagerly. It's not like the problem is that the minimum salary is too high, or that it costs too much to maintain the pension plan. Those kind of costs are set in a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and those obligatory costs are usually what labor and management are arguing about whenever they have a conflict. I'm talking about air traffic controllers, cops, and sanitation workers, here.

Not sports owners. The problem most of these guys face is discretionary spending--when given discretion, they spend too damn much.

Usually, when someone doesn't exercise control of their discretionary spending, we're not too tolerant of their behavior. A lot of talk about sleeping in the bed you've made. We make an exception for sports, and I just can't figure why.


Chris said...

I liken this to the triumph of visa over american express. One has a spending cap, one does not. As Americans, we seem willing to confess our utter lack of self-control and responsibility. Personally, I blame religion. Or at least, it's not the fault of the blogs. Anyway, nobody seems to think the owners are pathetic idiots for willingly spending money they don't have. Well, most people at least.

DJ said...


It's funny, because I was thinking of that same comparison while writing the article. While Amex doesn't have a spending limit, you usually don't get into as much trouble with that card as you would with credit cards because at the end of the month, you've gotta pay it all off, or your Amex will be denied.

People tend to think of it as the players' resposibility to keep the sport financially viable, but no one really takes the owners to task for the harm that they're doing to all the employees and businesses that depend on them--the vendors, the arenas which were built at taxpayer expense. I get sick just thinking about it.

Well, at least in baseball we get to enjoy one more year of sanity before the labor junk starts up again...