by Mike Chen on 05/19/09 at 03:32 PM ET
For both supporters of both sides regarding the Jim Balsillie/Phoenix Coyotes debate, there’s one point I kindly ask you to drop. It’s a major sticking point, a PR agenda, but ultimately it’s nothing but empty jingoism. So please, drop any sort of national interests in this because while Balsillie’s PR team has cleverly wrapped up his intent in the Canadian flag, it ultimately has nothing to do with nationalism.
Think of it this way. When the Ottawa Senators were in financial trouble back in 2002, scuttlebutt had Balsillie ready to catch the proverbial ball if Eugene Melnyk’s group dropped it. If this whole thing was about Balsillie trying to “make it seven,” wouldn’t he bypass the opportunity to purchase a Canadian franchise and stick with trying to relocate an American one? When I asked Balsillie’s team about this very notion, they didn’t answer the question. Instead, they just said that they didn’t want to talk about the past and they wanted to focus on the current venture.
Fair enough. But by avoiding that issue, Balsillie’s team failed to really refute that argument and, in a way, cement their nationalistic argument. Sidestepping it pulls the curtain back on the Wizard of Blackberry.
And really, his true intentions are nothing to be terribly ashamed about. He simply wants to own a team from his favorite sport in his backyard. He’s a billionaire, so he’s got every right to do that. It’s his execution that’s flawed, arrogant, and screams more of an attention-getting brat than a clever businessman.
If Balsillie’s goal is to turn Canada against the NHL, it’s probably the wrong battle to fight. Remember, this league withstood an entire-season shutdown and it current metrics show it stronger than ever across a lot of different areas. If Balsillie’s goal is to turn Canada against Gary Bettman, there are two major sticking points. One, sports league commissioners aren’t exactly beloved by the fans anyway. Two, while Bettman obviously has sway as the mouthpiece, negotiator, and key adviser for the Board of Governors, he still answers to that same Board of Governors. In other words, Bettman has 30 bosses—he’s not an all-knowing, all-powerful emperor throwing lightning bolts from the top of his NHL throne.
Turning the public against Bettman won’t do anything because the public is already against Bettman. Turning the public against the league won’t have a lasting effect because modern society has a very short memory as it is—when training camps open in September, most hockey fans will probably have forgotten about this issue (assuming it’s resolved by then, whatever the outcome).
What Balsillie’s power play (pun intended) has done is further alienate the Board of Governors—the guys that would have to ultimately and formally accept him into the league. His tactic—brash public self-promotion and an attempt to circumvent league rules—has to make you wonder if he truly does want a team. It’s a basic lesson you learn in business: don’t burn your bridges because you never know when you’ll need them.
Balsillie’s a smart guy. No one gets to be in his position without a combination of intelligence, work ethic, passion, and at least a little luck. Knowing that, why would he try to buck the one system he needs to appease in order to get a team? Keep in mind that the Board of Governors aren’t exactly young, impulsive guys with money. There’s no overnight millionaire with a soul patch and endless Internet company stock. These guys are mostly old school and old money, and they don’t appreciate someone trying to come in and rewrite all the rules.
If Balsillie really wanted to make things work, his best choice would be to play it cool and collected: purchase the team in good faith, act like he’s giving it the old college try, and then relocate after he’s in good with the Board of Governors. For whatever reason, Balsillie’s intent on showing his cards when trying to get an NHL team. He did it with Pittsburgh, he did it in Nashville, and he’s doing it again here. If he had just kept his mouth shut and quietly played his intentions, he’d be much further in the process than he is today.
Fans on Balsillie’s side have taken to his notion that he should be allowed to circumvent league rules because Canada deserves a seventh team. Pro sports, however, isn’t actually about the desires of fanbases or nationalistic pride—it’s about money. Success produces money, so that’s the ultimate goal of every team (whether they execute it or not), be it the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, New York Yankees, or Manchester United. With that in mind, a league will put a franchise in place where they think it will create revenue, both directly and indirectly.
Why then create the Phoenix Coyotes? You may consider this vision flawed (and that’s open to debate), but the idea of American expansion isn’t just about TV dollars. The way to grow a game is for generations to grow up with it. The expansion/relocation from the 1990s is just starting to see tangible effects—witness the number of players becoming draft eligible born in California or the number of minor teams in Texas. Those are the types of people that the NHL wanted to create when they moved southwest, much more so than any random eyeballs on the TV screen. There’s a big difference between 500,000 extra people watching half a period on TV and kids growing up with the game in new markets; those kids will involve their parents, buy equipment and merchandise, and pass their passion on to their friends and family, thus ultimately establishing a culture and a community.
And for fans that think that the league (not Bettman; remember how the Board of Governors ultimately control the league) is the enemy of Canada or small markets, recall how the league held the line during bankruptcy or financial difficulties in Buffalo and Ottawa.
Is Phoenix a viable market for that? Again, that’s a debate for a different time. Current evidence says no on the surface but poor ownership and management have prevented a fair study of the market. In any case, this is about league rules and money. So let’s put forth this hypothetical situation. Let’s say the Canadian dollar crashes over the next year and the Ottawa Senators start bleeding money. Let’s also pretend that an independent study shows that Las Vegas is the absolute best place to put a new sports franchise. And let’s pretend that the Maloof brothers signed a behind-the-scenes deal for $250 million for the Senators on the condition that they move to Vegas—no ifs, ands, or buts. At the same time, let’s pretend that a local buyer was working with the league on a $150 million purchase.
Would you support that movement? It’s essentially the same situation as now minus the nationalism; take away the tint of Canadian pride and you can easily see that this really is about one person trying to circumvent the rules to get what he wants. It’s a simple debate about whether the ends justify the means. If Balsillie sets a precedent now, who’s to say that Joe Blowhard can’t try and poach a Canadian team five years on?
In many ways, nationalism is a good thing. It brings out our pride when it comes to civic duty and heritage. However, history shows us plenty of times how nationalism can be perverted into someone’s own personal agenda. This is what’s happening here. Look at the facts and ignore the PR spin. If you really support making it seven, find someone that will abide by the rules of the league. It’s the only way into the club; everything is else is just searching for the media spotlight or trying to play public opinion.
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