THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Diane Francis Headshot

Hockey Brawl: Owners Not Players

Posted: Updated:

The Phoenix Coyotes hockey team should move to southern Ontario and BlackBerry billionaire, Jim Balsillie, and the NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, should both head for the showers.

The two have had three slug-fests over what to do about money-losing U.S. hockey franchises and now it's time for cooler heads to prevail.

Bettman opposes any move -- which is unjustifiable. And Balsillie has been high-handed and has attempted to make this a patriotic issue to stir up Canadian public opinion. Neither man is behaving appropriately.

This is not about patriotism. Hockey is a game that lots of North Americans love but not all North Americans watch, support or follow. Expansion into the U.S. has been beneficial overall, but I believe that the league must also be run like a business.

Stop squabbling now

Bettman has done a good job for 16 years and met the owners' mandate which was to expand for profit. Annual revenues have grown to US$2.2 billion from US$400 million.
That said, the world is changing and all business models must be tweaked or reconstituted. The facts are that an NHL franchise in Phoenix does not make sense and the team has never turned a profit in 12 years despite a generous owner, community good will, a nice arena and the involvement of the best brand name in hockey, Wayne Gretzsky.

Bettman argues that absence of a team in the southwest U.S. and moving it to a small market in southern Ontario will hurt the league. I disagree.

The world's richest league is the NFL and it has not had a franchise in America's second-largest city, Los Angeles, since 1995. Conversely, the NHL's franchise in tiny Green Bay Wisconsin (population 300,000) is a winner thanks to a loyal fan base and community ownership.

Franchises should be where they should be, no matter how humble or clustered. The NFL doesn't have to be in every city or region and neither does hockey.

In addition, the move will improve the league's image. A successful team in Kitchener-Waterloo or Hamilton will enhance hockey but retaining a failing franchise in Phoenix won't.

A cold game for northerners

Besides, hockey attracts customers who live in "Nation Hockey" -- or cold-climate regions. More kids play hockey every year in Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire or Canada than will ever play in Arizona or New Mexico and it is these kids and their families who buy tickets to games or watch them on television.

Even so, some argue that Balsillie's proposed move will lead to a landslide of others moving to smaller markets in Canada, stunting audience growth in the states.

But the league controls whether money-losing franchises move or not. This happened to the Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets. No one, nor can any court, argue that the league should not have the right to govern itself on a case by case basis.

Bettman is correct in fighting ad hoc moves, but he is going too far by insisting that Phoenix must stay there when there's a viable alternative.

Balsillie is correct in making the business case but damages the sport by whipping up patriotic sentiment against American owners and Bettman.

Both should be sidelined and the decision made by other participants, such as the other owners, who will end up subsidizing Phoenix, as well as the NHL's players who are partners now with interests aligned financially with owners through profit sharing.
This is a business situation. Bettman should make a case or get off the puck. Sports leagues are no different than retailers with chains of stores. If Macy's, like the NFL, doesn't have to be in every big city, or spread around, then neither does the NHL.

Diane Francis blogshttp://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/francis/default.aspx at Financial Post