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The Game of our Lives

Reflections on money, fans and the future of sports

TRAVEL BACK TO 1979. Find a hockey fan and ask him about money. “Money,” he’ll say. “Isn’t it outrageous what these guys are making? They play this little boys’ game that they’ve played all their lives for nothing, now they get all this money, and they’re complainin’. ‘We wanna play where we wanna play. We’re like slaves,’ they say. Yeah, right.” Our fan is sputtering. “The Rocket never made more than $25,000 a year, and Howe, in Detroit, not much more than that. And now, what’s the average salary? $110,000 Canadian? Give me a break! They’re ruinin’ the game. These guys and their agents.”

Then tell that fan about 2003.

“Well, actually,” you say, beginning slowly, not quite sure how to get to the rest, “I’ve been living in the year 2003 and it did last. In fact, it got worse.”

The fan raises his eyebrows at your first bit of news, even higher at the second.

“Yeah, the average salary in 2003 for an NHL player is about $1.7 million US.”
The fan’s eyebrows are stuck.

“Really, it’s worse than that because in 2003 the Canadian dollar is worth a lot less. So it’s about $2.3 million Canadian. And that’s for thirty teams. The real superstars get about $10 million US or so. That’s about $14 million Canadian.”

The fan starts to say something, but words don’t come. Then he can’t hold back any longer. “Who are you?” he accuses. “There’s, there’s no way. $2.3 million for an average player? Come off it.” He starts laughing.
You’re not even smiling.

He stops laughing. “That’s nuts. I mean it can’t be. I mean you take the richest team, the Canadiens, the Leafs, the Rangers. There’s no way. Nobody could afford it. They’d go broke. How could they pay that? $14 million for a superstar! The Rocket never made more than $25,000.”

Now you interrupt him. “Oh, there’s one other thing. The fan in 2003,” you continue, “he’s paying about a hundred bucks a ticket. Some are paying more than that. But there are video boards and mascots and . . . ”

The fan explodes. “Now I know you’re crazy. There’s no way. I mean, no way. A hun–dred bucks,” he drags out his words just to hear them himself. “We pay twelve. Twelve bucks for the best seat in the house, and that’s outrageous. I mean payin’ twelve bucks for a hockey game. It’s nuts. Payin’ a hun–dred? Come off it! Nobody could afford it.” He shakes his head. He wants to laugh but he can’t. It can’t be right, he thinks to himself. It just can’t be.

Now, you stop him. “Did you say twelve bucks a ticket?”

His world still spinning, the fan seems not to hear you.

“You didn’t say twelve bucks a ticket? For the best seat in the house?”

The fan nods.

“There’s no way,” you say accusingly. “No way. I mean twelve bucks a ticket! In the thirties maybe. Maybe during the war. In 1979? No chance.” You know you are right because you lived through that time yourself. Yet you’re so distant from it now, so conditioned to something else that any memory you might have can’t be right; you remember something else. You remember twenty-five bucks, thirty, maybe. But twelve? It can’t be right, you think to yourself. It just can’t be.

It is right, all of it—the $110,000, the $2.3 million, the twelve bucks and the one hundred bucks. It seems we couldn’t have gone from where we were to where we are, but we did. It happened, in part, because of the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA).

The NHL owners had had things all their own way. In the 1950s, attempts to set up a players union had been beaten back, the instigators quickly traded to the League’s gulag of the time, Chicago. The owners treated their players, on the ice, as courageous, competitive, smart and proud. Off the ice, they treated them as uneducated, ill-bred, Canadian farm-boys with broken-down faces, lucky to have a job at all, whatever they got paid. What the NHLPA needed was someone who understood the personal and collective strength of the players, who knew that if he worked with them, pushed them, coached them, gave them confidence, they would show how courageous, competitive, smart and proud they were off the ice as well. Then the NHLPA would be a force.

The NHLPA was created in 1967, and the fights began. And any fights, compared to the time before of no fights, seemed like fighting all the time. The NHLPA and its leader Alan Eagleson, it appeared, were really taking on the owners. Eagleson was “Uncle Al, the players’ pal,” and through the 1970s, that impression remained.

THE PLAYERS WERE NOW GETTING more freedom than ever before. Their salaries were rising immensely. It was because of the rival World Hockey Association (WHA), and Eagleson had nothing to do with that, but who noticed? And it didn’t seem that way. Then in 1979, the WHA was gone—and for the players, the troubles began. Eagleson had never built a real organization at the NHLPA. There was no power behind his bluster. In negotiations with the owners, Eagleson’s strategy was to shout “no,” and whisper “yes.” There had also long been charges of impropriety and illegality. Yet it wasn’t until 1991 that, under pressure, he resigned from the NHLPA. He was convicted of three counts of mail fraud in the US and three counts of fraud in Canada, and in 1998 sentenced to eighteen months in jail.

Eagleson was replaced by Bob Goodenow, a Detroit-born, former Harvard hockey player as stolid and systematic as Eagleson was flamboyant. And while as a dealmaker, Eagleson’s instinct was always to say “yes,” Goodenow’s is always to say “no.” It is to fold his arms, shake his head and wait. And wait. That style, Goodenow’s determination to build a real organization of the NHLPA and the inability of the League’s owners to wait in return, has resulted in huge gains by the players in the last ten years. Some of those gains have come out of the owners’ pockets. But most have come from money that hadn’t been there previously. Challenged by the players to try harder, to do a better job so that they could afford a better team, to win, the owners hired managers and challenged them to challenge the fans to pay more for their tickets. They also challenged companies to put up their money for expensive corporate boxes; sponsors to buy space in the ice, on the boards or around the arena for their messages; broadcasters to challenge their advertisers and subscribers to ante up more for the games; fans outside the arena to pay more for seeing their team inside their own home and to buy jerseys, key chains and posters as well. The result? To an extent that has shocked both the challengers and the challenged, all have met the test.

The owners have done all this by building new arenas with corporate boxes closer to the ice; with club seats, specialty restaurants and bars; with concession stands that serve more than hot dogs and stale beer; with cushioned seats with longer legroom; with a video board and sound system that entertain. All of this comes with a new understanding that the hockey game doesn’t have to be just for the hockey fanatic. Hockey can provide an evening’s enjoyment for a casual fan as well, someone who might otherwise have gone to the opera, the theatre, a movie or to a restaurant. But to attract that fan, you need to provide what he or she is used to and expects from any entertainment: a comfortable, friendly atmosphere; attentive people; a sense of pride and caring; and an engaging experience that can be talked about later.

Sports needs that fan. There are now lots of interesting things for everybody to do, and they are available to more people, especially to those who can afford season tickets. Season ticket holders don’t want to go to all forty-one games in a season. If they don’t find others to take up their tickets for some, indeed most, of those games, except perhaps in Toronto, they will give up their tickets entirely. Thirty years ago and before, most season ticket holders went to most games themselves. Now, they spread their tickets around and most fans attend games as a special occasion. Going to a game is like going to The Lion King or Phantom of the Opera, something they budget for, that they only do once or twice a year. Without the casual fan, the number of season ticket holders would fall and the price of tickets would go down. The more people the tickets can be spread among, people who will accept special occasion prices for a special occasion experience, the more teams can raise the price of tickets. Season ticket holders don’t want to pay more—that’s their bottom line. If that means going to fewer games, if that means purposely fooling themselves, that’s OK.

The crowd has changed. The fans complain that higher costs mean that they can’t go to games any more, let alone take their kids. Yet, the fact is, in Montreal and Toronto, those fans never could go to games. What price had once allowed, lack of access did not allow. If the great-grandparents of today’s fans were not rich in the 1930s or 1940s, the tickets were already snapped up, passed along to new generations and gone forever and those fans were out of luck.

Yet, undeniably, things do feel different now. A game is now much more a full entertainment experience, with music, video replays and features to support the action below. Those fans old enough to remember when the only music was the clickety-clack of stick against stick and puck find it all too much. Those under thirty, who have been raised on the pound and blare of sound as energy, wonder what the fuss is about. To them, and there are more of them all the time, this is their life.

Owners are businessmen. They like to make money. They think they are special, and they want others to think of them the same way. Some also want attention, not just status. They don’t want to be just another “dime a dozen” multi-millionaire invisible to all but their colleagues and cronies. Ownership of a sports team can do that. It will get them attention. It will make them important. What the owners didn’t realize was that attention and importance can be good or bad. Only winning makes it good.

Owners and players both like to win. They are both used to winning. Both got to where they are because they are great competitors. When both have a choice—when a player is a free agent or when an owner might lose a free agent or acquire one from another team—money is a consideration for both of them, but both also want to win. There is one difference: a player can get his money and still win in a few different places. The owner can only win where he is. The player can leave; the owner can’t. So owners chase the players, salaries go up, fans pay and sometimes owners pay. It is why we are where we are today.

(from Issue 7, Feb/Mar 2004)

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