clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Cautionary Tale

Two sentences of three words sum up today:

Pitchers and catchers.

NHL cancels season.

So while we baseball fans bask in the longest period of labor peace since before the 1972 strike (2005 will now be the tenth consecutive uninterrupted season, eleventh if you count the abbreviated 1995 year), hockey fans are lamenting the demise of their major league for its 2004-2005 season, the first such cancellation in North American sports history.

All four of them.

This is the problem, of course, with hockey: it is a niche sport. It does not have the widespread appeal of baseball, basketball and football in the USA. Sure, it is Canada's national sport, and is very popular in many cold-weather cities in the USA, notably Boston and Minneapolis, where hockey on the youth, high school and college levels is also a big deal.

Note that I didn't mention Chicago, where the Black Hawks long ago ceased to be a force, beginning with the ill-advised snubbing of icon Bobby Hull in 1972, and continuing since then with owner "Dollar" Bill Wirtz' absurd belief that televising home games, even on cable TV, would hurt his revenues by reducing the number of "season-reservation holders", as he quaintly called them.

I also didn't mention Los Angeles, where former Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke once said of the local populace:

There are 600,000 Canadians living in southern California. I now know why they moved here - they all hate hockey.

This being the case, the NHL lived beyond its means for many years, expanding into hockey deserts like Nashville, Atlanta (twice), and Charlotte, and real deserts like Phoenix, where it also failed.

Hockey was also hurt by the fact that its Canadian franchises, which should have been the bedrock of the league, couldn't compete due to the collapse of the Canadian dollar. At one point in recent years, the loonie was worth only sixty US cents, which meant that the Canadian franchises had to start at a 40% disadvantage. Two of them -- Winnipeg (Phoenix) and Quebec (Colorado) had to give up and leave.

The niche nature of the sport also meant that national TV revenue wasn't really available -- after Disney's five-year $600 million deal, signed in 1999, failed to produce any ratings for the ABC/ESPN combination.

Thus, the NHL decided to play hardball, and the owners have won -- but what have they won?

They've established that they can shut down their sport until they can pick it up on their terms, and those terms are likely to include replacement players, franchise foldings and much lower salaries.

And though the NBA and MLB are in much stronger territory when it comes to revenues, this may embolden both basketball and baseball moguls to try such tactics the next time their labor agreements come up for renewal. While baseball, in particular, is making a fortune (regardless of what the owners claim), it is also true that they are beginning to price many fans out of the market, and as a result of the many multi-million-dollar contracts doled out this winter, perhaps also triggering some grumblings and resentments among those of us -- the paying customers -- who pay the bills.

This is something of which both owners and players must be cognizant, and as of yet, I see no signs that any such thing is happening.

It is, indeed, a cautionary tale.

Now let's play ball.