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The problem with the “owners can’t control themselves” argument

Aug 17, 2012, 11:28 AM EDT

Zach Parise, Ryan Suter Getty Images

It’s dangerous for a hockey writer to even appear on the side of the NHL owners these days, but after reading Kelly McParland’s column in the National Post titled “NHL again wants players to save owners from themselves,” I thought I’d risk getting killed in the comments section to play devil’s advocate.

A snippet from the column:

Once again the owners want wage concessions, which they will inevitably ignore. They want to tie salaries to league revenue, reducing it from the current 57% to the equivalent of 43%, end the arbitration system that sometimes works in the players’ favor, and limit contract terms to five years to stop themselves from offering more.

In other words, they want the players to accept rules that restrict their bargaining power, because the owners know they lack the resolve to protect their own finances.

Here’s the question I have to that argument: Do you really want the owner of your favorite team resolving to protect finances? Seems to me most fans want their team to keep its best players and be active in free agency. Unless I missed all the furious Preds fans when ownership matched Shea Weber’s contract and all the irate Wild fans after Ryan Suter and Zach Parise signed.

The reason those three players got such big contracts is because so many teams wanted them and a bidding war ensued.

Sure, all the owners could get together and agree to end the bidding wars. Oh wait, no they couldn’t, because that’s called collusion.

Lest we forget what was happening in baseball back in the 1980s.

From an Associated Press article, dated November 2, 1986.

Baseball’s annual free agent auction is on. Let the bidding begin.

What are we offered for Jack Morris, a 21-game winner last season armed with more victories over the last six seasons than any other pitcher in baseball?

How much is National League batting champion Tim Raines worth, after hitting .334 and stealing 70 bases? Or his teammate, Andre Dawson, who hit .284 with 20 home runs and 78 runs batted in?

How about third baseman Bob Horner, with 27 home runs and 87 RBI? Or Lance Parrish, the American League’s All-Star catcher, who hit 22 homers and drove in 62?

Who will open the bidding? Someone? Anyone?

Come now, gentlemen, there is top-level talent available here. Surely some team can use these players. Remember, the free agent marketplace has traditionally been an important way to improve your ball club.

Not last year. Not according to the Major League Players Association. Hearings resumed last week on its grievance, claiming management conspired to restrict baseball’s free agent market last winter.

“There’s baseball free agency?” player agent Doug Baldwin said sarcastically. “You’re kidding.”

Donald Fehr probably remembers those days since he was executive director of the MLBPA at the time.

Now, one way the owners can help the financially challenged teams without taking so much out of the players’ cut is more revenue sharing, and we’ll undoubtedly see that once this whole mess is over. That’s what happened in the NBA last fall.

But ultimately we don’t want a system where owners are resolving to protect their finances. We want a system where each owner is able to give management the freedom to go all out and assemble the best team possible without putting the business in jeopardy.

Related: Which side do you support in the NHL’s labor dispute?

  1. dayno66 - Aug 17, 2012 at 11:41 AM

    Couldn’t agree more.

    • imleftcoast - Aug 17, 2012 at 1:44 PM

      The question I have is who has more to lose cancelling the season. I can’t believe the owners are willing to risk problems with NBC and halving the value of their franchises. The players have something to lose, but I think Bettman has truly failed by letting some of the owners take this league over the cliff. He needs to press hard and come back with a reasonable counteroffer.

  2. davebabychreturns - Aug 17, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    Might as well sign this one “Ed Snider, dictated but not read.”

    • davebabychreturns - Aug 17, 2012 at 12:13 PM

      (I couldn’t decide between that joke comment and “I want the owners of the other 29 teams to be committed to reducing player salaries.”)

    • Jason Brough - Aug 17, 2012 at 12:22 PM

      Dictated? It was tattooed on my forehead.

  3. adlent - Aug 17, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    Limiting contracts to 5 years instead of allowing 10 or whatever won’t matter and neither will constantly forcing the player pie down. So sure, owners want to keep the best players and there are bidding wars. Sure, there is a hard cap and there will be less room to violate it, but eventually the cap will raise and more stupid contracts will get dolled out. Has a punitive luxury tax + salary cap + shorter contracts saved NBA teams from making stupid, stupid offers… come on… in year three of Omer Asik’s deal with the Houston Rockets he gets $15 million… 2 million less than LeBron James made this year.

    Owners/GMs will always float out stupid contracts (Dennis Wideman??). However, because they can’t help themselves, they force the cap to be smaller and take away money from the players. If they have to spend less, they won’t make as many stupid decisions. Meanwhile, rich owners just get richer because they have to spend less. They always say sports is a business, but why do the employees have to suffer because those running the business fail?

    It doesn’t have to be collusion to not make clown decisions.

  4. elvispocomo - Aug 17, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    My take on it is this: while limitations like contract length could ultimate be good for the game, it’s not just to save the owners from themselves. The players and their agents are also culpable in the big money, big term deals since they’re driving the bus on these bidding wars. If a player would just go to the team he wants to and accept a fair market value, then that would also solve the issue.

    It’s a free market and you can’t blame the players for accepting deals offered to them, but why pit a bunch of teams against each other just to get a bigger deal than the already big one you were offered before? Should the NHLPA not be stepping in to protect the ‘99%’ of their union that has trouble getting fair value on their deals because there’s no room left after signing a free agent superstar? That is a union’s job, to protect everyone equally, from the lowly 4th line grinder to the 1st line superstar.

    To be clear, I’m not taking the side of the owners when they support a system where teams losing money hand over fist are kept in place yet they want to complain about how they have to support them. They could make that change by dictating to Bettman, who is effectively their employee, that they should fix the teams that need it financially rather than rely on the players to support their business model of expansion in non-traditional US hockey markets.

    There are problems all around and blame to be had on both sides, even if one is worse than the other.

    • ray2013 - Aug 19, 2012 at 12:37 AM

      I don’t have a problem with players driving up their salaries. The problem I see is one that happens in the NBA. There is room on every team for a max-level contract, but there aren’t max-level players

      In the case of hockey, I think most people will agree that Datsyuk is one of the best players in the NHL. So there’s no problem with him making a top-level salary. But since every team has the same cap (but only one Datsyuk), salaries go out of whack pretty quickly. So you have to pay somebody in order to make the salary cap floor. So someone like Ales Hemsky gets paid a top-ten salary for his position ($5 million/yr) even though he only scored ten goals last year. I have no problem with players getting paid, but some players are much better value for their salary and you have GMs like Tambellini giving out contracts like they are candy and have no consequence from year to year.

      • elvispocomo - Aug 20, 2012 at 11:51 PM

        Agreed that there are only so many players worth the top contracts yet plenty that get paid like it, and the players realize that too. That doesn’t stop them from taking the money, and having their agents drive up the price to get them those deals. Someone has to offer it, and the owners have no one to blame but themselves in that regard, but there’s two sides to every coin.

  5. aventador12 - Aug 17, 2012 at 1:15 PM

    Money talks and you know who walks. Or better, one word can pretty much sum all of this for both ends: Greed.

  6. nolockoutpricks - Aug 17, 2012 at 1:25 PM

    they should just make it pay for performance. start everyone at one million dollars and then go from there. 40 goals two million more 40 helpers two more million. good plus/minus, $500,000. that solves everything you have a good year you get paid. you dont you get what you deserve.

    • awickler - Aug 17, 2012 at 6:35 PM

      you cant perform if your injured…

    • elvispocomo - Aug 17, 2012 at 8:24 PM

      And how the hell would you plan your roster if someone has a big year and you’re already at the cap? Having a fluctuating salary like that wouldn’t work.

      What if you were a player in a contract year and played through an injury, or worse yet, couldn’t play at all and your next contract was a fraction of what you made the year before?

    • kitshky - Aug 18, 2012 at 3:11 PM

      That has to be stupidest (no offense) idea I’ve heard yet …

      There’s far too much wrong with that concept to even try and discuss it all but for starters there is no way to arbitrarily assign a monetary value to what each player brings to the table on or off the ice. You’re effectively removing and all impetus to win as a team and brought the focus to personal accomplishments … not exactly the spirit of the game.

      Secondly, you’re assuming that players salaries are tied exclusively to on ice performance and not towards overall community marketing, merchandising, attracting other players, putting asses in the seats …and so on.

      As a hockey fan you’re clearly passionate about the game, but from a business perspective you’re coming off as a little clueless.

  7. bmscalise - Aug 17, 2012 at 1:46 PM

    This argument makes very little sense. Yes – I want my owner and GM to protect their finances. I don’t want a GM who isn’t willing to say, “Sorry – but this is all we can offer. If it isn’t acceptable, we understand if you go find another team.” As a Penguin fan, I know our GM does that regularly, even if it means missing out sometimes.

    Moreover, I think the owner demands are at cross-purposes and highly unlikely to be effective in the ways they pretend they will. The primary reason for the inflated contracts is a limited FA pool. GMs felt the need to over-pay because there were only 2-3 worthwhile FAs in each position. The owners ridiculous suggestion to limit FA to those with 10 years experience seems like it would be to their advantage. But instead it will lead to more of what we saw this year: a small number of FAs like Suter and Parise being offered ridiculous contracts because the supply of FAs is insufficient, while non-superstar veterans (who would resign for reasonable contracts) are replaced by kids and end up in Europe. Small-market franchises will flounder trying to compete for the small number of free agents, as opposed to being more financially stable.

    In other words, the owners plan won’t control salaries: it will just insure that a very small number of high-end players get hugely inflated contracts. It’s a plan where the rich will get richer (both players and franchises) and the poor get poorer. And that’s why I’m on the players side: the owners have shown no actual interest in doing what’s best for the game; their plan just reflects the wealthy owners confidence that they can bully everybody else.

    • Jason Brough - Aug 17, 2012 at 2:18 PM

      I hear your argument. Some (actually, a lot of) GMs just give out dumb contracts. But as a Penguin fan, isn’t it a little easier to castigate teams that aggressively pursue stars in free agency? Would you be applauding Shero for passing on free agents if the Pens didn’t have any stars and/or had multiple glaring weaknesses and you were forced to watch a boring/losing team all the time?

      • bmscalise - Aug 17, 2012 at 4:17 PM

        Castigating is a little harsher than my intention. But I’m pretty sure that Calgary fans wish their GM would say no every once in a while. Good drafting will always be the foundation of a successful team, even if it means exercising patience. That’s why a GM needs to act like a GM, regardless of fan pressure.

        Sure, it’s probably easier for me to say this right now because the Pens are the team they are. But I’m also old enough to remember the franchise in pretty much every possible position. I remember watching a Pens team with 7 future HOFers – a team that was as magnificent as it sounds but ultimately very damaging to the franchise. I also remember marketing campaigns in which Rico Fata was front and center.

        I believe in a hard cap (and a real hard cap) and other appropriate strategies for keeping player salaries in check. They are necessary, especially in hockey. But none of this undermines my main point – which is that the owners plan won’t do what it purports to do.

      • Jason Brough - Aug 17, 2012 at 4:19 PM

        Good lord, Rico Fata was front and center in a marketing campaign?

    • Jason Brough - Aug 17, 2012 at 2:33 PM

      It’s also important to differentiate between signing players that will hurt the team from a cap perspective and signing players that will hurt the team financially. I’m talking about the latter. Of course you want the GM to manage your team’s cap wisely.

  8. deadrabbit79 - Aug 18, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    How about a max contract system like the NBA? So in the case of say….Parise. The most the Wild could offer was say 5 years at $15mm per year while the Devils could have offered 6 years at $15mm per. That way players get long term contract(6 years is a pretty good amount of time i think) while owners can give out long term deals without getting locked into ridiculous 10,12, and 14 year contracts. It also gives the players current team an edge with regards to holding onto its players. Would Parise have stayed in NJ if this was the case i dont know but……just sayn.

  9. getadealdonealready - Aug 18, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    I’ve got an idea, have a work stoppage again, lose your TV contract, and become less popular than pro soccer. I don’t care what you do but please figure this out before Sept 15th!

  10. deadrabbit79 - Aug 18, 2012 at 8:25 PM

    I agree, soccer is on the verge of becoming the 4th sport. A lockout will make it so. Don’t be stupid you morons! Get it done!

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