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The Globe and Mail

NFL aside, North American sports leagues fatally flawed

TV networks are breathing a sigh of relief that a new collective bargaining agreement is now in sight for the locked-out NFL. The milch cow lives! It's expected that no games will be missed, allowing networks that shelled out $8-billion (all currency U.S.) for rights to have actual games to show.

Other leagues wish. Because, NFL excepted, the pro sports model is broken. As we've said before, the NHL is not a hockey league: it's a franchise operation that runs a hockey league. Franchise equity, real estate and tax breaks, not the standings, are the real lifeblood of the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball. By those criteria, business is not good.

With the exception of the NFL, all the leagues are bloated with useless franchises being propped up by evermore-arcane financial models. Outside of Canadian cities willing to sell their souls for hockey, no one in North America wants what Gary Bettman is selling (or at the price he's asking). Ditto the NBA and MLB. The market's dried up.

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The NBA has recently locked out its players in the hopes of creating a more perfect mousetrap that allows wildly varying markets such as New York and Oklahoma City to compete equally. The NHL is watching intently, having seen the model it created by the cancellation of the 2004-05 season fail to stem losses, encourage franchise values and create demand. MLB sits in the same position, although without the salary-cap panacea embraced by other leagues.

Distribution of revenues, equality of play and franchise stability are invariably sabotaged by the basic economic rules of supply and demand which push stars to major markets and tilt parity to rich teams. Hence the need for franchise player categories, salary arbitration, transition tags, rookie caps and all other manner of Rube Goldberg financial devices to vainly even the playing field.

None of these artificial construct afflicts European soccer, where teams play at the economic level they can afford. It's pay as you play, rather than propping up poor sisters. Parity is the price paid for this model, but that seems moot when one sees the runaway popularity of the Premiership or Serie A worldwide.

So why haven't the leagues started shifting to more sane models? Because the bonanza of television and digital money now flowing into the business allows leagues to avoid the reality that their model is fatally flawed. With billions coming into leagues from telecoms and networks, leagues can put a happy face on revenue. When reality intrudes, player salary demands are blamed and we get lockouts such as the ones we now see in the NBA and may again see in the NHL or MLB.

It's a zero sum game, however, ready to collapse under its own weight as fans realize that lockouts are a result of fights among owner/partners about how to run their league, not conflicts with the hired help.


Bill Simmons of is perhaps the most original sports writer since Bill James. One of Simmons's ideas is a week-long, single elimination tournament for the final playoff seeds in the NBA. As you read this, just substitute NHL for NBA and tell us it wouldn't be a TV blockbuster.

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"Let's say we cut down the regular season to 78 games, lock down the top seven seeds in each conference, then stage a week-long, single elimination, 16-team tournament between the nonplayoff teams for the 8-seeds. (No conferences, just no. 15 through no. 30 seeded in order.)

"The higher seeds would host the first two rounds from Sunday through Wednesday; the last two rounds (The Final FourGotten) would rotate every year in New York or Los Angeles on Friday night and Sunday afternoon, becoming something of a fun sports weekend along the lines of all-star weekend. Friday night's winners would clinch playoff berths. Sunday's winner gets two carrots: the chance to pick their playoff conference (you can go East or West), as well as the no. 10 pick in the upcoming draft (that's a supplemental pick; they'd get their own first-rounder as well) ...

"Lottery teams couldn't tank down the stretch or shut down starters for nefarious reasons; not with a possible playoff berth and an extra first-rounder at stake. Fans would remain invested no matter how poorly their team was playing down the stretch (knowing the tournament was coming up). Sponsors would pony up extra money to be involved. We'd get a fun basketball weekend in New York or Los Angeles out of it. The 14 playoff teams would get 10 days off as their bonus."

Sign us up.


TSN is moving reporter Sara Orlesky to Winnipeg. Orlesky, who has local roots in the city, will remain the sideline reporter of choice for CFL games but will also bolster the network's coverage of the Jets. Should TSN get regional rights to the Jets, Orlesky would be a major factor in the coverage.

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