Friday, September 3, 2010

On Balance

"It’s not that simple,” Brian Burke said, voicing the minority opinion in front of a Toronto conference room filled with the most influential minds in hockey.

In the afterglow of the games once in a generation success at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the overwhelming consensus at the Word Hockey Summit was that it is, in fact, that simple. The NHL should go to Sochi in 2014 with almost no reservations.

Overall the Summit appears to have been a success, bringing different perspectives from management, players, and media members into the same room to discuss the biggest issues in the game. Though, with much at stake and the perception amongst hockey’s mavens to be swung, it was not without its share of political theater, at times devolving into what appeared to be hockey’s “spin alley”.

Speaking on behalf of his Maple Leaf boss and the other 29 franchise owners who have yet to make a decision on participating in the games, Burke lends his well deserved creditability to the argument that while everyone is in favor of returning, the deal involves complexities that prevent the league and players association from rubber stamping it without further information. An argument that seems like a more than reasonable stance until said complexities are examined.

Perhaps too aware of the way millionaire owners would come across holding out of the Olympics for their own gain, Burke, who put together the silver medal Team USA squad in his first term as general manager, attempted to take the side of his players.

“They aren't paid,” he argued. Mentioning the airplane tickets and hotels the players had to pay for any friends of family that joined them for the events, as if the IOC should bend over backwards accommodating player entourages. But buried in his less than believable support for the players was the real point, the one thing ownership would have people walking away from the discussion remembering. The sticking point that has kept the NHL from enlisting for another Winter Olympics: “The IOC makes a fortune off this thing.”

Other arguments are moot. 15 of the 16 teams that make the NHL playoffs don’t pay the players for the experience either. Brilliant Red Wings GM Ken Holland argues a point of view that hemust be far too intelligent to actually believe. That the travel could affect players and in turn cost teams wins, and as we saw this past spring, even a single point can decide whether a team makes the postseason or not.

Imagine how criminal it would be
if a playoff spot was decided by
something as silly and outside the
sanctity of the game as traveling.
No, we know how these things
are supposed to be decided:
Breakaway contests.
But that argument rings a little hallow when the league itself will send teams to Helsinki, Stockholm, and Prague to start off the season as part of the NHL Premiere program, now in its fourth year.

And if the league is particularly interested in eliminating needless travel and interruptions in the schedule, perhaps they should start with nixing the now entirely pointless All-Star weekend.

Any reluctance to enlist for the Sochi games instead can be more accurately summed up in a single word for Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly when he referred to players simply as “assets”.

To the owners, most of which are extremely successful business men, that is what players are. They are something that they invest millions and millions of dollars into, and as a result they lure the top talents and allow them to play at their absolute peak. They are afforded the best equipment, coaching, training, facilities, and health care that money can buy.

And every four years these elite players take that talent, paid for and fostered by NHL owners, and play essentially for free for another organization that makes money hand over fist.

The IOC made nearly $400M in
Beijing in 2008. Or, based on his
contract negotiations with the
Devils, enough to lock up Ilya
Kovalchuk through 2067
While numbers from the 2010 games have yet to be reported, the IOC had a net revenue of $2.4 billion in 2008 from the Beijing games, off of which they made a cool $383.3 million in earnings. Meanwhile, based on a November report from Forbes magazine, 14 of the 30 NHL franchises operated at a loss last season.

When you ignore the fact that it is their very own CBA that is responsible for suffocating smaller revenue teams, it almost seems reasonable. Almost.

The IOC takes advantage of NHL assets, and in turn the NHL wants something back. Even if players, especially the leagues Russian talent, seem absolutely eager and willing to head back to the games again. Superstar Alexander Ovechkin has already stated that he intends to go either way. Yet owners are willing to play the “as long as you live in my house you’ll live by my rules” card.

See, if we look at statements made by the league’s own fearless leader, Commission Gary Bettman, this is really all about its broadcast . No one has called for the IOC to send a giant check to the NHL. No one has asked for the IOC to pick up the tab on 2 weeks of the NHL players contracts that it’ll tap.

“If we are going to disappear for the better part two weeks, we want to make sure it’s worth it,” Bettman said. “Particularly if the time zone puts you eight hours ahead of the east coast.”

As mind blowing as it might seem, this whole thing is apparently just the league posturing itself to promote the game better. Which, based on your perspective, is either the height of hypocrisy considering the leagues embarrassing exclusive cable contract with VS. Or for those particularly stubbornly “glass half full” people, a lesson learned, albeit five years too late.

The International Olympic Committee has yet to even award the US television rights to the Sochi games, pushing back bidding multiple times in an attempt to deal the rights in a more favorable economic environment. Without a broadcast partner decided, shouldn’t the league be hesitant to make any decision? Isn’t that the type of information the league needs to come to a decision?

The Globe and Mail's Bruce
Dowbiggin reported
that NBC
has prepared two contracts.
One if the league participates
in Sochi, one if they don't.
Perhaps, but with NBC’s $200+ million loss on the Vancouver games, and ice hockey being one of the Winter Olympics signature events, and with broadcast networks lining up with bids that rival African countries GDPs, I’m betting the TV side is arguing the reverse logic. How are networks supposed to deal for the TV rights without knowledge of whether or not the greatest ice hockey players in the world will be at the rinks in Sochi?

And make no mistake, even if the US TV rights haven’t been secured yet, no one is going to be hiding the coverage on a third rate network, like say, Versus. Alongside NBC, FOX and ESPN are lining up to bid on the US TV rights for the Sochi games.

In an understatement for the century, Bettman characterized the 2010 Vancouver games as being “on balance, good”. But, of course, not before first making it clear that “even when it’s very good, there are issues” and calling Olympic participation “a mixed bag”.

Now see, here is where I differ from the all mighty and powerful commission. If I was representing a group of owners, nearly half of whom lost money in 2009, I’d have another name for a national event like the USA v. Canada gold medal game that drew 27.6 million US viewers, the most that have watched a hockey game since Miracle on Ice. It would go something like, “The answer to all our prayers” or perhaps “eureka”.

There is too much to gain by participating. When the leagues marketing strategy can best be described as “preaching to the choir”, the Olympics succeed at doing something the league hasn’t, getting people who don’t watch hockey to watch hockey.

The question on everyone’s lips around the NHL was whether or not the game would get a “bump” based on the success of the Olympics. It was answered 3 months later when the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals became the highest viewed in 36 years.

But the issues taken with the broadcasting continue. Sure, Vancouver was the greatest thing to happen to the sport in the US since Al Michaels exclaimed that immortal phrase as the clock approach zeros in Lake Placid, but that kind of success could never be replicated outside of the continent, right? Definitely not if the broadcasts will be taking place between 4AM and 2PM EST.

If there is one sport
that hockey is ahead
of in the US peaking
order it's pro soccer.
Now here, Bettman might have a point … if three months ago ESPN didn’t take the South African hosted 2010 World Cup, broadcast it between 6 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, and turn it into what can only be described as a national phenomenon. Ratings up 41% from 2006, and with the final match-up that set the record for US viewership of a men’s soccer game.

Or as Bettman would probably describe it, “being, on balance, good for soccer.”

So no matter what angle you try to take on the 2014 Sochi games, the NHL players are going to participate. Anything you hear between now and the point the deal is official that implies anything to say the contraire can only be summed up as political posturing.

And any person affiliated with the league or the players association who tell you anything besides “We love and are honored to participate in the Winter Olympics, we are working hard to come to an agreement with the IOC, and we fully expect to be back in 2014” is either playing you for a fool, or they themselves, “on balance”, are a complete and utter moron.