As Forbes magazine declared the Toronto Maple Leafs the first NHL franchise to hit $1-billion (all currency U.S.) in value, the league’s players and owners reluctantly sat down in Washington, D.C. with federal labour mediators.
While the accuracy of Forbes’s numbers can be either questioned or cited by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the owners and managers depending on the point they are trying to make, the figures generally serve as a ballpark indicator of the NHL’s financial condition. What is important here is not so much the Leafs hitting a magic number - and who knows if that $1-billion value is dead on with the league once again mired in a lockout - but the great disparity in value between the NHL’s richest and poorest teams.
It drives home one of the key points NHL Players’ Association executive Donald Fehr and his negotiators have made throughout the lockout – the path to financial health for all 30 teams is through increased revenue sharing. It is not something the wealthy teams are interested in, although the NHL reportedly is close to an agreement with the union on a revenue-sharing plan that would see around $230-million redistributed annually, an increase of about 53 per cent from the $150-million under the former collective agreement.
However, that represents only about 7 per cent of the $3.3-billion the NHL brought in during the 2011-12 season. Major League Baseball, which found prosperity with greater revenue sharing thanks to the prodding of Fehr when he was head of that sport’s union, sees its rich teams put 31 per cent of their local revenue into a fund shared by the poorer relations.
Since baseball also has sharp differences in revenue between financial powerhouses like the New York Yankees and basket cases like the Florida Marlins, it only makes sense that sharing would work for the NHL as well. But, in addition to refusing to consider compromises on contract issues and splitting revenue with the players, the most influential owners in the NHL don’t want to hear about more revenue sharing either.
The numbers, though, suggest they should take a look. The top five teams in the league (in order, the Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins) are worth a total of $3.023-billion. The NHL’s bottom five teams – in order, the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix Coyotes and St. Louis Blues – are worth a total of $726-million, a staggering $2.23-billion less.
Maybe Scot Beckenbaugh and John Sweeny of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent government agency, can drag some of the recalcitrant owners toward this position. But few are expecting much, since the last time the warring parties turned to mediation, in February, 2005 during the last NHL lockout, the entire season was cancelled a few days later.
The parties sat down shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday and the early indication was that the sessions could continue for a second day on Thursday.