After a couple commenters brought it up, I was looking forward to reading Bill Simmons’s Gary Bettman rant. The problem is that his bottom line is completely wrong. In a lockout so obviously unjustifiable that it’s a rare case where both fans and (based on my anecdotal reading) the mainstream press have correctly blamed the owners, Simmons says that Bettman wasn’t pro-owner enough (or, more precisely, wasn’t pro-owner enough during the previous lockout):
We should mention that, in a vacuum, he’s correct about this particular lockout: The league’s financial model (already a mess because we have too many NHL teams, which is 100 percent Bettman’s fault, but whatever) can’t be sustained with such meager television revenue. Hockey depends on its attendance and the unwavering devotion of its zealous fan base. From a television standpoint, the league will always be handicapped by its lack of marketable stars (the biggest reason it can’t command anything close to the NBA’s television deal), a glaring problem that I noticed during my first year owning Kings season tickets, when I realized that it didn’t really matter who the Kings played from night to night. Sure, you always enjoy seeing the Malkins and Ovechkins, but it’s a much different mind-set from, say, LeBron playing the Clippers. Anyone who went to Wednesday’s Heat-Clippers game was thinking I’m going to see LeBron!, because they knew he was playing 90 percent of the game. In hockey, you don’t say “I’m going to see Ovechkin!,” because he might play one-third of the game if you’re lucky (and might not make a single meaningful play).
What evidence, exactly, is there that the NHL’s financial model isn’t “sustainable?” Plenty of teams are profitable, many of the teams that aren’t showing a paper profit aren’t losing money for the owners (many of whom benefit from windfall ancillary revenues given to stadium authorities or whatever rather than the team itself, as well as increasing franchise valuations.) And if you can’t make money in a nontraditional hockey market with a team that has no history of success, well (as Simmons concedes) I’m not sure how that’s the players’ fault.
At any rate, there’s nothing inherent to the nature of the game that makes it a bad TV sport per se (in Canada, where the NHL has a status comparable to the NFL in the United States, ratings are very high and tv rights therefore very valuable.) The NHL doesn’t get a lot of TV money from American networks because the NHL isn’t the number one sport anywhere and in many markets doesn’t even rise to the level of a niche. And nor is it true that the NHL doesn’t generate stars. This, of course, is why Simmons needs the qualification about how you can’t be guaranteed to see stars play most of the game and be a focal point. So what this is really about is another way for Simmons to make his point that the NBA is by far the greatest of the American team sports. Which is fine as far as it goes, but not a good way to think about a labor dispute. Obviously, the NBA is far more than any of the major sports dominated by front-line stars. To many, this is crucial to its fascination; to me, it’s the primary reason why the NBA is by far the least interesting of the major American sports. But this is a matter of taste (and I’m making it sound like a more rational dispute than it is; if I grew up in Indiana rather than Western Canada I’d be much more likely to see the virtues of the NBA’s star-generation rather than the NHL’s greater competitive balance.) But as an argument that the owners deserve to keep more money, it’s neither here nor there. What matters is not TV revenues or revenues generated by star marketing but revenues, period. And while Simmons won’t mention this because he no longer likes the game, note that Major League Baseball, which dilutes the impact of its star players to a degree greater than the NHL, brings in much higher revenues than the NBA. The latter is much closer to the NHL than MLB.
So how do we end up with a salary system that allows Minnesota to spend $196 million on Ryan Suter and Zach Parise? And that’s not to pick on those guys — you could build a decent playoff team around them as long as your goalie didn’t stink. Just know that nobody is saying the words, “Suter and Parise are coming to town tonight!” It’s just not that kind of league. You go to hockey games to see quality teams, not quality players. There’s a fixed level of entertainment. Suter and Parise shouldn’t make that much money because hockey players shouldn’t make that much money. It has nothing to do with them.
I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’m going to need more than bare assertion and null analogies here. I never like this technique of talking about the gross figures of lengthy multi-year contracts rather than the annual figures, which makes them seem far more burdensome than they actually are. Why shouldn’t a star player in league that generates more than $3 billion a year based on these players make $7.5 million a year? Why shouldn’t the value of players be determined through negotiations? The idea that it’s wrong for a premium player to make $7 million but it would be OK for them to make…what, $6 million? Five? It’s all completely arbitrary.
The bigger problem is the fact that the relative reliance of the NHL on attendance revenues means exactly the opposite of what Simmons thinks it does. In the NFL, where teams are cushioned by a massive national TV deal, you can field a terrible team and still expect to make money. In the NHL, you need to draw — and in most markets, this means putting the best team on the ice that you can. The Kings might have played to 100% capacity last year, but five years ago it was 91%, and less demand also means lower ticket price, fewer people actually using their season tickets and buying high-markup stuff at games, etc. And even in the markets (Toronto, Montreal, the Rangers, Vancouver) where demand for tickets is relatively inelastic, if (or in the case of the Maple Leafs, when) you don’t make the playoffs you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. Simmons can’t really believe that if the Kings replaced Kopitar, Quick, and Mitchell with generic players X, Y and Z that it wouldn’t impact the bottom line. Exactly how much should be a matter for owners and players to figure out in individual negotiations.
Simmons proceeds to a lengthy discussion of the AMC model, arguing that the network doesn’t hire stars except when it does and the NHL should emulate that. I’ll pass over that bit with only one point. It’s true that none of the Mad Men actors were stars when they were hired, and so AMC could get them cheap (sort of like how young, pre-arbitration NHL players are paid artificially low salaries.) But it doesn’t follow that the stars of Mad Men are fungible now. Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks certainly have plenty of leverage having become indispensable stars, so I think this analogy doesn’t prove what Simmons thinks it does. Moreover, teams are perfectly free to try the AMC strategy of eschewing star players if they want.
Bettman and the owners are completely and unambiguously in the wrong here. There’s no good reason for salaries to be further suppressed artificially. Most teams are in decent shape or better, and if the league insists on having teams in Phoenix, Nashville and Columbus while metropolitan Toronto has only one team (as the largest city in a country in which a city smaller than metropolitan Albany can have a immediately more valuable franchise) that’s not the players’ problem. The NHL’s Republican owners are classic contemporary plutocrats — they’re all for the free market until it punishes people who are powerful but incompetent, at which point it’s time for the taxpayers and employees to make them whole. To hell with ’em.