There’s a whole world out there, folks. Not just of hockey, but of sport at-large. The majesty of the sporting world cannot be contained to on-field exploits either. The differences between leagues and sports from an organizational perspective can be equal parts staggering and eye popping. It’s safe to say we have yet to figure it all out in North America, and by a long shot at that.
There are lessons we, as hockey enthusiasts, can pluck and pry to figure out how professional hockey can exist on this continent without being shut down every couple of years. Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
I have benevolently stolen from Asia. Brace yourself, for this is my Cubist movement. There’s plenty of room for you to join.
The Indian Premier League has emerged as the top cricket circuit in India. How did it pop into existence? Out of a labor dispute between the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the Indian Cricket League. When the BCCI ordered a boycott of the ICL, it necessitated the creation of a new league. Enter the IPL.
The IPL is novel for a few reasons. First of all, it’s tough to argue with its success. Through five years its value as a league is near the $3 billion mark and this is down from years past. Granted, there is a massive audience for cricket in southern Asia which certainly trumps that for hockey given the whole ‘population’ thing, but clearly the business model is on to something.
If we were to draw a franchise to franchise comparison of the two leagues in terms of franchise value, it’s not close. It’s not an issue, really. The brand value of an NHL team completely and utterly trumps that of an IPL team. Longevity of brands and the North American marketing behemoth does wonders that a five year old cricket league in India never could.
Why have I brought you here? I’m utterly fascinated with the structure of this league.
Once a year the IPL has an open auction for the right to every player in the league. There are caps, of course, on what you can spend on each player — there is an NFL style ‘Franchise Tag’ which caps the biggest auction bid at $5 million on a player, for example. Players who aren’t claimed after the auction are free agents and you’re free to sign them at your own discretion. Each year the league resets and everyone enters the auction pool for next season.
There is no strict trade deadline in our strict sense, but there is a type of ‘trade window’ in the sense of the Footy style transfer market. Players are only allowed to be traded at their own approval.
The IPL got me thinking.
The NHL is broken. There’s no getting around this. Not only have there been three lockouts in the past two decades, but the reality is the league isn’t worth enough to warrant trying to stave off the lockout. You want to know why the NFL didn’t miss a regular season game in 2011? There’s too much money at stake. Mindblowing amounts of money that make the NHL look like your neighbour’s kid’s coin jar to the NFL’s Berkshire Hathaway. If we’re going to do a face value of the NHL situation, it has plateaued. Perhaps it’s time to pull the plug. Perhaps the IPL is the NHL’s reckoning.
Let’s explore the idea of an IPL inspired spin-off league, shall we?
I hereby propose a ten team rebel league — rebel to the Galactic Empire that is the NHL, of course. We’ll come to know the rebels as the good guys — it will be formed prior to the expiration of this NHL lockout.
There will be ten franchises in said league. Locations? Toronto, New York, Montreal, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles. These are the locations of the ten most valuable franchises in the NHL. I’m sure each one of these towns has an eccentric billionaire who would love to own a hockey team. Indulge them.
Every player in the world will be added to a list. And by every player, I mean every single freaking player. Everyone who has an NHL contract, everyone who has a KHL contract, everyone who has an SM-liiga contract, and so on. Everyone. This list will comprise the auction block. There will be a set auction cap and you will be forced to spend it wisely. Think of it as the ultimate auction fantasy draft. Once your money is gone, it’s gone. You’re done. You’ll need to pick through the leftovers if you can’t fill out a roster.
The auction, of course, will only give you the exclusive rights to negotiate with players. You can pay them their true value or what you can afford rather than what the market will dictate. You want to give Scott Gomez $42 million a year? Go for it. It’s your money. The asylum is at the end of the road, turn left. It will be a one year deal, because the auction has to happen again prior to next season.
Let’s look at the merits of this system, shall we?
First of all, professional hockey in North America to rival the NHL, if not surpass it. NHL contraction in the first place means a deeper talent pool and, by extension, better teams and, by extension, better hockey. Just doing it under a different heading will have the same effect. The league would be made up of ~200 players, thereby ‘trimming the fat’ so to speak. You want to know how no talent goon X still has a job? Problem solved. He doesn’t play in the top rung anymore. A lot of problems have just been solved.
Second, you have effectively made the league lockout proof. By resetting the league each year you prevent the Rick DiPietro contracts of the world, thereby saving the owners from themselves. The players would also have the opportunity to make more money on a yearly basis, given that there would be impetus to pay up for a yearly run which would put yearly performance at a premium. Let’s also not forget that a player veto in the trade window also gives them greater ability to choose where they play, should the issue come up. Happy player = better player.
Third, by limiting the league to financially sustainable markets you ensure the league’s profitability. There are no square pegs in round holes here, just hockey markets with hockey teams. This isn’t a slight on non-traditional markets as some have done quite well for themselves, but it’s a simple dollars and cents issue. As the league progresses there will be opportunities for towns to buy in for a fee, just like the IPL.
While some may argue that competitive balance becomes an issue, I would argue that a cap on the auction, rather than salaries which, as we know, are prone to circumvention, evens the playing field further. In the past five years of IPL play, four teams have won titles. Certain franchises are clearly stronger than others, but the fact is anyone has a chance.
Now, while I’ve essentially had a shotgun wedding with this idea and now plan on staying married to it forever until I die, there are drawbacks.
The lack of brand recognition is a problem. It would obviously be amazing to retain the Leafs, Rangers, Habs, etc., for the sake of the name recognition, but I don’t have the foggiest idea of how a team would go about extracting themselves. Could MLSE buy themselves out of the NHL? I would certainly hope so, as I would hope for all of these locations. A non-Bruins team in Boston would be a bizarre pill to swallow, regardless of your opinion on the franchise.
The lack of long-term deals may also deter some players from wanting to make the leap, but the potential for a big pay day from one year to the next also adds some incentive to play in this league. I’m also banking on the magical rebel league taking enough of a bite out of NHL revenues that salaries would force players from their cushy 12 year deals. Keep in mind that there is no salary cap on contracts, only auction fees. It’s whatever gets negotiated. Sidney Crosby wants $22 million? Sure.
As far as the nuts and bolts of the league, a schedule in the neighborhood of 58 games would do the number of teams in the league justice. A six team, NFL style playoff wherein the first two seeds get byes and teams three through six battle it out in the quarter-final. The Stanley Cup will, of course, be the prize here because this will be flipping awesome hockey.
This may be the equivalent to falling in love with someone who appears in a drug induced hallucination, but damn it all, I’m smitten.
A live auction. Ten teams. The best 200 players in the world. When you woke up this morning you didn’t think someone would tell you that cricket may be the best thing to ever happen to hockey. Here we are. It happened.
Can you get on board with this? I’ll make the phone calls.
Stick tap to theScore’s Andrew McKay for getting my brain working on this. For getting my brain working at all, actually.