n fact, Brunt may have published a primer on Tuesday for the Commissioner to study, featuring a couple of troubling developments for the league bureaucracy to examine and sort out. Some percolating issues, which try as he might, don’t appear to be on the verge of going away any time shortly.
In his Globe and Mail column on Tuesday, Brunt examined the state of the league as they prepare to drop the puck on another chase for Lord Stanley’s mug. His findings show that the league is doing quite well in Canada, where the suddenly skyrocketing loonie is making for a cash flow bonus that provides for more dollars in the Canadian franchise treasuries, while the southern teams begin to feel the pain.
Included in his column on Tuesday were a couple of interesting brush fires that have flared up this week for the league to address. The on again/off again saga of the Nashville Predators sale seems to have moved into the death throes again this week. As the new council in the Nashville area, has not smiled beneficially on some of the “changes” that the Preds would like to make to such things a lease arrangements and other financial subsidies that the city is underwriting to keep the Preds part of the Nashville scene.
Brunt also examined the washing of some dirty laundry heading into opening night, examining a Larry Brooks story for the New York Post, which reported that Madison Square Garden chief executive officer James Dolan has been busy blasting the league office for incompetent handling of the NHL brand. Dolan who seems to enjoy controversial roles these days, took time out from the legal woes that have befallen MSG to drop a little diversionary bomb at the doorstep of Gary Bettman.
Dolan believes the Rangers do a far better job selling their product in all of its permutations than the league ever could. Said Doolan, “we believe that the league continues to squander opportunities to improve our business and solidify and grow our fan base.” He pulled out some interesting numbers to back his case, recounting how some 93 per cent of the NHL overall revenue (up from 91 per cent before the lockout) is generated by the teams, with only 7 per cent generated by the league.
In effect, he’s probably wondering what the NHL office is doing to not only justify its existence to improve the game on a wider agenda.
(part one of a long piece on these two issues facing Bettman — Nashville and the MSG lawsuit…. Stay tuned for part 2)
Over in baseball-land, there have been fans calling for Selig’s head since he was named commissioner; baseball has, much to their dismay, simply ignored them and continued to follow Selig, and has shown really nice financial numbers and seems to be doing well. Challenges? Yes, such as the steroid issue — but all in all, baseball’s doing pretty well (and I say that as a “not a Selig fan” person).
Which is a good reminder who the Commissioner works for. Fay Vincent’s failing was that he actually thought he represented the fans, and his real bosses wouldn’t put up with it forever.
Ditto Bettman. But in this case, it’s not so clear how his support with the bosses is going. but I felt I had to point out right up front that the commissioner isn’t working for the fans, unless doing things for the fans fits the larger agenda. They never have, never will.
Now, having said that… To me, the Nashville “problem” isn’t. Bettman has made his position clear on this up front, and it’s the same position he’s had with other teams (Pittsburgh, and for those with shorter memories, Edmonton during the worst of the exchange rate crisis) that were at risk of moving. The league position is simple: you do whatever you can to keep a team from moving, until it’s clear it’s not going to work. At that point, you figure out where to move the team.
the “new ownership problem” is really not Bettman’s problem. It’s Leopold, the owner of Nashville. Let’s not forget that Leopold negotiated with Balsillie in secret, hiding it from the league until there was an agreement in place. Why? Because both sides knew the league wouldn’t support what they intended to do, which was move it to Hamilton, and Balsillie wanted to get the PR machine going to try to force Bettman’s hand. Didn’t work.
Now, Leopold’s trying to work out a deal with a local “white knight” group (which actually includes a major backer of the Kansas City group — that should have told you up-front how strong the Nashville group’s finances were, folks). For those with short memory, we’ve done this before, in a town called Winnipeg. We went through the love/hate live/die cycle with the Jets, with a local group coming in to buy and “save” the team, going to government for help in making it financially viable, and finding out, ultimately, that it wasn’t going to happen.
Now, the same is happening in Nashville. And we’re now seeing the government say “well, maybe not”. That particular game of chicken isn’t over, but it looks really unlikely that the prospective owners will get what they want. I expect the deal to fall apart.
None of this is really Bettman’s fault, much as the Canadian press loves to pillory him (THAT is an essay for another time; I’m getting pretty damn tired of the Canadian press whining about hockey in America and ripping on Bettman for his sin of — gasp — not being Canadian. Pretty much everything else about why they hate him falls from that fact, folks).
This is business. It’s how these things work. Bettman is letting the people of Nashville decide if they (a) want the Predators, and (b) are willing to pay full price to keep them. Don’t forget: Leopold’s been subsidizing that team heavily since inception; the region’s gotten the team at a discount (not unprecedented, the Sharks have lost some money every season also — it comes down to how much and whether the ownership is willing and able to do it). Now, we’re trying to find out if the Predators are viable in the town, and whether fans will support them at a ticket price that’s going to support the team. Neither, frankly, seems to be true.
What you end up with once this process is done (painful for fans, but typical for business situations, actually. and let’s not forget, this is a business based on the game of hockey), you’ll have a lame duck team in Nashville, and no fight by the region to keep them. They were given their best shot, fair and square, and it didn’t work. To a good degree, all of this is a vaccination against lawsuits and all of the legal pain a team move might cause — because Leopold and the league can point and say “we tried!” — and they did. Balsillie would have had a much harder time of it, by the way, but was willing to simply throw money, guns and lawyers at it to make it work, and be damned with the PR. the NHL isn’t quite so — straightforward.
Now, officially, Bettman has no “plan B”, he’s working on saving the team for Nashville, as he did in Edmonton, as they tried (and failed) in Winnipeg and Quebec, due mostly to currency exchange problems. Unofficially, I’ll bet the Kansas City move is already being talked about — informally.
The rest is just letting the process finish out, which, since lawyers and contracts and PR and governments are all involved, has to happen. Fan response in Nashville seems to be hovering around “well, it was fun while it lasted”, so I expect this is the last year for Nashville in Nashville.
I’m not surprised. If you look at how Winnipeg went down, it was a very similar way. White knights riding in on armored horses, only to, well, have to think about it once they see the size of the dragon. Public displays of loyalty by fans, drives to buy tickets. Lots of theater — but theater doesn’t change the financial reality, and eventually the real part happens when the people who write the checks (the current owner, new prospective owners, arena and local governmetns) sit down to talk money. And frankly, you probably could have guessed this — if Leopold could have found a way to make this work, he would have. And didn’t. He’s not a bad owner. In fact, he’s one hell of an owner and the NHL really is going to lose a good one when he moves on.
So nobody should be surprised that since he didn’t get it done, nobody else is going to, either. And Bettman has very little role in all of this, except to take the criticism of Canadian journalists and of bloggers looking for someone to blame. But then, that’s his job, to take the bullet for the board of governors while they pull the primary strings.
continued in part 2…..