In reading about Gary Bettman, it’s clear that many of the things the NHL has demanded from its Players’ Association are lifted from work previously done with the National Basketball Association.
Forgotten is in how much trouble the NBA was when Bettman was hired by that league in 1981. The league had expanded to 23 teams, but arenas were half-full and the games were only televised late at night on tape-delay.
It’s almost a parallel to the NHL in the mid-2000s. The league switched over to a soft salary cap tied to league revenue, the first of its kind, and a modest new TV deal along with the arrival of a star player helped grow the game to fantastic heights.
Michael Jordan and Sidney Crosby are different people who appeal to different audiences and had different modicums of success upon entreating the league. Crosby was a phenom since his early teenage years, Jordan wasn’t even the No. 1 overall pick. His rookie success got him a Sports Illustrated cover and a major draw in opposing rinks.
Crosby only visit 19 road rinks in his rookie season; The second biggest failing of the NHL coming out of the last lockout was the emphasis on divisional regular season games that prevented star players from playing in every arena. He couldn’t be marketed the same way as Jordan, even though hockey is a lot like basketball in the way its season is structured. What remains though, is that him and a select few other NHLers generate a buzz when they’re in town. As such, they ought to be scheduled to play in every single rink.
In wins, Crosby will likely never be worth what he’s being paid by the Penguins. Each win costs a certain amount of dollars, and each player is worth a certain amount of wins in the lineup. He does provide the Penguins a financial benefit. Keeping him around is good for the franchise—he’s the face, a player popular enough to turn hockey around in Pittsburgh and eventually drum up enough public support for an arena to be built in downtown Pittsburgh.
The Penguins, with Crosby, probably make as much money back off their investment in Crosby. That’s more of a contract with a financial interest than hockey-related, a lifetime deal to guarantee that Crosby will be a long-tenured player with the Penguins.
Back to Bettman: One of the things about the NBA salary cap that benefits teams since it allows them to market their home-grown stars properly as well as improve their team is the ‘Larry Bird Exception’, allowing for certain franchise players’ salaries to not count against the cap. It’s basketball’s ultimate loophole, and Bettman, while not being its architect, was present in its development.
The biggest failing of the NHL coming out of the last CBA is that the league underestimated the salary cuts the game’s major stars were taking to open up salary cap space for supporting cast. This effectively made the game’s most overpaid players its cheapest and the game’s most underpaid players its most expensive, particularly from a revenue-generating perspective. Crosby brings the league well over $8.7M, but I have a hard time believing Mike Brown nets the NHL $500K. “The weird thing about the current climate is that the salary cap slices the cost of the players that bring in the most revenue to the league,” explains mc79hockey:
If you go through and compare, you see that the guys in the lower half of salaries for first and second liners aged 24-30 and all the way through for guys aged 31+ have had larger percentage increases in their salaries than the guys in the upper half of salaries for players 24+. It’s one of the curious absurdities of what the NHL has done in locking in a players’ share of salaries and circumscribing teams within a tight payroll range – crappy teams that used to be cheap have now become more expensive and, as a result, crappy players who used to be cheap have increased in cost more than good players. It’s a bizarre way to pay people, a consequence of having a sort of Soviet structure.
Note: this does not mean that paying lesser players much less is a way to “fix” the NHL’s “problems” – this is a consequence of a system where good players have decided that they value the chance to play with good players more than they value another couple of million dollars in annual salary.
We’re basically looking for a way that effectively rewards the best players in the game. I think owners would love to know that they can keep their own talent.
My suggestion would be that a certain percentage of a player’s salary doesn’t count against the salary cap provided the player was drafted by the organization and into his UFA years. A $6M player, for instance, only has a $4.5M salary cap hit, or somewhere in thereabouts.
Since so few players stick to their drafted teams, this would encourage player development rather than building through free agency. For some teams, like Edmonton, that build through tanking every season, it takes them a while to be able to see the rewards of the system. Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall don’t see their first “UFA years” until 2017-18.
It’s not perfect, but it benefits lots of menial journeymen on rich teams with marketable players a few extra thousand bucks with the savings. It also benefits them since a healthier league with recognizable stars is probably going to make more money. It’s inevitable the Players’ are going to take a much lower cut of HRR% at the end of this, so their focus should be on ways that force individual teams to grow the game and overall revenues.
The other inevitable thing is that rich teams will always find ways to circumvent the salary cap and pay stars outrageous dollars. I don’t think anybody back in 2005 expected that front loading salaries was a huge possibility. You may as well write the method of circumvention right into the agreement.