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Friday, 25 April 2014

The Dark Side Of Sports

NHL Hockey
The NHL (National Hockey League) has 30 teams. 7 of those teams are in Canada and the other 23 are in the US. Without a doubt hockey is Canada’s national sport which isn’t the case in the US where it lags behind pro and college football, professional baseball, basketball, and auto racing. Still there are some hot beds for hockey in the US. There are also NHL teams, particularly in the south, that struggle with attendance like Florida, Tampa, Phoenix, Carolina, Atlanta, and Columbus.
Owning any professional sports team is an ego thing. This is not exactly surprising. It is another way for a very wealthy person to show that they are the big dog. Pro sports have several sources of revenue aside from putting bums in the seats including television and merchandising.
In 1993 Gary Bettman was brought in by the NHL team owners to be the league commissioner. He is a lawyer by trade and previously to his tenure with the NHL he was a vice president of the National Basketball Association. For some strange reason the commissioners of 5 of the major sports in the US are Jewish including Gary Bettman. Bud Selig runs Major League Baseball, Paul Tagliabue runs the National Football League, David Stern (Bettman’s former boss) runs the National Basketball Association, and Don Garber runs Major League Soccer.  
In the little over 20 years that Bettman has been in charge of the NHL he has increased revenue from 400 million per year to over 3 billion per year. He has also expanded the league by 6 teams. For many years selling NHL franchises was a big source of income for NHL owners. Bettman was determined to see the NHL expand in the US South.
There have been times that I and some others have wondered if some Americans really understand hockey. Are they watching and waiting for some kind of blood lust because hockey is the only team sport where fighting doesn’t equal automatic banishment?  Some American spectators seem think it is quite OK to bang on the glass as an opposing player goes by them like it is part of their rights in purchasing a front row seat.
Bettman has been responsible for 3 player lockouts in the past number of years including the 2004-2005 season when the NHL was shut down for the entire season. If hiring Bettman was about making everyone involved in the NHL more money he certainly has met those expectations and then some.
There have been some confusing things about how the NHL has gone about their business since Bettman took over the reins. In 1996 a guy named John Spano agreed to buy the New York Islanders for 165 million dollars. He claimed to be worth 230 million dollars, had built a company that employed 6,000 people over 6 years, and had inherited a fortune from his uncle Angelo. It turned out that these stories were all lies but for the best part of a year Bettman bought into the con artist’s stories. Spano ended up in jail.
The lockouts were mostly about revenue distribution. The owners thought the players were getting too much of the money. The last NHL lockout was in the 2012-2013 season. There was a settlement in January of 2013 and the playing season was shortened to 48 games followed by the playoffs.
In the NHL there is something called “Free Agency” which allows players past a certain age with expired contracts to sign a new contract with their own team or another team. The basis of the 2012-2013 lock out by team owners was supposedly about reining in costs. Last year’s free agency turned into a frenzy with the owners spending over 375 million on new contracts on the first day alone. So much for reining in costs.
A New Jersey player, David Clarkson, was probably the most coveted player in free agency last year. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed him to a 7 year contract at 5.25 million per year. He was to score all of 5 goals for the Leafs this past season.
During the 1994-1995 season Gary Bettman secured a 5 year television deal to broadcast NHL games with FOX Television. The deal was worth 155 million dollars which was a lot more than the NHL had received in American TV revenue previously. This was the era of the glowing puck on FOX. Despite failing ratings Bettman got a 5 year TV deal with ESPN and ABC in 1998 worth 600 million dollars. In 2011 Bettman managed to put together a 10 year TV deal with NBC/ Comcast worth 2 billion dollars.
Hockey Night In Canada has been an institution in Canada for over 60 years. For many years Canadians could only see 1 live hockey game a week on TV and it was on a Saturday night. The games were broadcast by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), a government owned corporation. Older Canadians will remember the greats from the past that they saw on Saturday nights, the exciting playoffs year after year, the Summit Series between Canada and the USSR in 1972.
Canadians went from watching the excitable Howie Meeker to the bombastic Don Cherry for in between period entertainment.
Somewhere along the line Canadian NHL hockey teams and American NHL hockey teams started selling the local TV rights to their games and sports networks also got into the action. Some teams like the Vancouver Canucks also introduced pay TV for a package of selected hockey games or one game at a time. The pay TV thing didn’t last long in Vancouver and most fans resented it.
For the last several seasons Canadian hockey fans have been able to see every game their home team plays including road games. Most of the colour commentary is done by ex NHL players. Canadian sports networks spend endless hours on hockey including panel discussions. Most of us are totally OK with how the hockey product has been presented to us with the exception possibly of one or two annoying commentators like Glenn Healy.
In November of 2013 the NHL announced that a new TV deal for Canadian NHL teams had been agreed to with Rogers Sportsnet. The deal has been valued at 5.2 billion dollars and is to last for 12 years. Rogers is A Canadian owned company that markets cable and cell phone services. Part of the deal was that the CBC and Hockey Night In Canada would continue for 4 more years but Rogers would control all of their content and get all of the revenue.
Rogers Media president, Keith Pelley, promised that “It will be the NHL like never before.” Hockey Night In Canada host Ron MacLean said “I think that’s great and I think the 5.2 billion dollar deal is tremendous for the league and the players. It just shows, you know, what hockey in Canada has meant. It’s a great day.” In my opinion Ron MacLean is a professional ass kisser who many Canadians have seen being bullied by Don Cherry over the years.
NHL hockey players will get about half of the 5.2 billion and the teams will have their salary caps increased by several million dollars. Unlike the NFL all contracts signed by NHL players are guaranteed and salaries range from a half a million a year for fringe players to as much as 14 million dollars. The average NHL salary is 2.4 million per year. Not too shabby when you consider that an NHL player often has a much longer career that other pro sports athletes.
It has also been announced that the CBC’s hipster interviewer George Stroumboulopoulos, a Montreal Canadiens fan, will take over hosting Hockey Night In Canada next year. The general consensus is this move is about getting George’s young fans interested in following hockey. Personally I think this is very unlikely to happen because George's forte has been getting the confidence of rock stars, actors and political activists in his interviews. My guess is that a lot of George's fans could care less about him interviewing hockey players. I predict that the Rogers deal won't bring with it a larger audience.
Up until this new 5.2 billion deal, hockey on TV in Canada was available from a number of Canadian TV networks. The new deal will cut the CBC’s revenues in half and the network has already had staff cutbacks with or without hockey.
What we are seeing here is the American corporate model. Take over as much of an industry as possible and gain absolute control. Cause lay-offs of employees by former competitors. With no competition and having a monopoly, customers who want the product then become at the mercy of those in control.
5.2 billion dollars is a lot of money. How is Rogers going to recoup their investment? NHL hockey in Canada is pretty well at its saturation point. Most Canadians can’t afford to buy seats at a game anymore. Even though 6 of the 7 Canadian teams failed to make the playoffs this year most Canadian NHL games are sold out.
Contrary to what some might think, watching hockey on TV isn’t free. First of all cable TV isn’t free and second of all neither is advertising. If you watch a commercial you are a potential customer.
If you have been around the block a few times you know what is coming to pay for Rogers 5.2 billion dollar deal. Pay TV!  Only total hockey nuts will go for this and there just aren’t enough of these folks around. At 12 or 15 bucks a pop for hockey a lot of fans might just wait to the late sports shows and watch the highlites and watch the big games or the play-offs in a bar. 15 bucks is at least 2 beers.
I think the NHL and Gary Bettman have grossly underestimated the Canadian public perhaps in the same way the American Target stores have in coming to Canada. Most of us don’t want to pay 15 bucks or so a shot when we didn’t have to pay that fee before. George Stromboulopoulos just isn’t going to cut it! We certainly don’t give a shit about NHL players making more money either. I’ve seen Derek Roy’s house and he doesn’t need a bigger one.
NFL Football
Pro football and college football in the US are nothing more than an organized racket. Yes I know football is the #1 sport in America and people go nuts for it but that doesn’t mean that the sport doesn’t have its scummy side.
Unlike team sports like hockey and soccer, or individual sports like golf and tennis, playing football at a higher level often involves taking drugs like steroids. A lot of positions on a football team require bulk and strength and steroids will provide both of those. Weighing 280-315 pounds may work when a player is in their early twenties but as they get older that weight will most often cause health problems and quite possibly a shorter life. Owners and fans won’t have to share in future medical difficulties. The list of current NFL players and ex-NFL players getting in trouble with the law during and after their careers seems endless and sometimes the mitigating circumstances are “ roid rage”.
The average NFL career only lasts only 3.3 years. Most players, other than the stars, are disposable. Contracts are often not guaranteed. The money may be great for a short while but the wear and tear on the body takes a toll on every player. Football is a hard contact sport and repeated concussions can leave a former player in a sad state of affairs as they get older.
Most pro football fans could care less what goes on behind the scenes. They just want to back a winner and have bragging rights. Many fans live a good part of their lives through their team. They wear the jerseys, paint their faces, carry their signs, have their bar-b-ques in the stadium parking lot, and pay huge bucks for their seats. They might not care for the prices for the fast food in the stadiums but a lot of them will still buy $7.00 dollar hot dogs and $5.00 pop.
NFL owners know that they have a good thing going for them. They don’t have to finance farm teams and they get their players for free from the college ranks without having to give the colleges a dime for teaching the players how to play the game. In almost every city in the NFL the stadium has been mostly financed by taxpayers. Many of these same taxpayers will never set foot in their local stadium. Some have called this “corporate welfare”.
Every now and then some owner or another will threaten to move the team to another city unless a new stadium is built with mostly taxpayer’s money. Robert Irsay actually followed through with his threats a number of years ago and moved his team, the Baltimore Colts, to Indianapolis.
More than any other sport, professional football can get out of hand very quickly. If one team is up by 3 touchdowns at the half the game is pretty well over. Very rarely does the team that is down 3 touchdowns make a full come back. A fan could very well sit there for another hour or more knowing that the game has been over for some time. Dandy Don Meredith used to sing about this situation on Monday Night Football….”Goodnight, the party’s over.”
As big as pro football is the US I find it interesting that probably 90% of the fans don’t know the names of more than 10 players on the team they root for.
US College Football
US college football is no different than any other sport including the biggest sport of them all, soccer, in the sense that being a fan is often about kicking the other team’s ass. When it comes to college football there are a number of rivalries between states. I’m guessing that most Catholics who follow football have a soft spot for Notre Dame. Fans completely forget the fact that their favourite team is stocked with a number of players from out of state. Who cares they think, if they think about it at all, after all every religion is open to converts.
For some reason college football and basketball are big draws whereas baseball isn’t. You would be hard pressed to find someone who knows who won the 2013 College World Series. It was UCLA.
College football in the US has 25 stadiums that hold over 80,000 people and 6 of those stadiums hold over 100,000 people. College football is a big deal. Last year total revenues were over 2 billion dollars. In 2013 the Texas Longhorns had gross revenues of over 109 million dollars and profits of over 92 million dollars.
So where does all of this money go? We are told by college and university spokesmen that the money is reinvested in the team with things like stadium and practice facility upgrades, sports scholarships, and propping up other college sports, like golf, swimming, wrestling, and gymnastics. If you believe this I have a bridge to sell you.
Anytime there is a lot of money around there are those that use their inside connections to slice off a chunk of money for themselves. It’s the American way. Just who gets the contract to build new facilities, the contracts to run the concession counters, the contracts for sports equipment and uniforms, and a whole lot of other expenses to do with the football team, is all decided behind closed doors by a close knit old boys network.
During the 2013 college football season over 70 coaches and 3 assistant coaches made over 1 miilion dollars. College football is the ideal business model. Almost everyone, other than the players who bring the crowds in, the cheerleaders, and the bands, make off like bandits. It’s hard not to make money when you have free labour.
Picture this. You are really good athlete just out of high school. Chances are, particularly if you are black, that you have come from a low income area like the inner city and that your family was financially challenged. You are about 19 years of age and now find yourself living on a campus with big lawns and old tall trees. You are totally away from the environment you are used to. On campus there isn’t the constant honking of car horns or the threat of a drive-by shooting. This is a peaceful place for the most part with lots of pretty young gals and people your own age that admire you.
Yes the coach and his staff are pretty tough on you and the days practicing are long. You know that you can be replaced quite easily if you don’t perform well on the field and each year there is a new crop of football players trying to take your spot on the team. If you are black you very well may not have had a father figure in your life. In many cases the coaches become that father figure. You listen to them intently because if you don’t you could easily find yourself back home without an education with the choice of working at McDonalds or selling crack on the street. Statistics show that only 22% of black college football players graduate from college.
These kids are between 19-25 years of age. They aren’t wise to the ways of the world or familiar with business. They are totally at the mercy of those in charge of the football programs. These kids are not going to organize and demand a piece of the profits. The old reasons used for not paying college athletes are that they are amateurs and the college is giving them an expensive education. There is nothing amateur about college sports.
Not only do the players not receive any compensation, there is no money put away for them once they leave the school. The players don’t even own their own likenesses. They are not even allowed to make a bit of money through endorsements. In some cases, if they are stars, they are given some cash under the table from wealthy alumni, which of course is against the rules. Friends of the team will also get star players laid on occasion.
College football fans can become blinded in their allegiance to their team. Over the decades there have been dozens and dozens of rapes by college football players. Victims have been as young as 13 years of age. It is often a double edged sword for women and girls who have been raped. First they suffer the trauma of being raped and then if they come forward and press charges they are often harassed and ridiculed by a number of the fans. In many cases these women have no choice but to leave the college they were attending.
Very rarely does a college football player who has committed rape receive any jail time. When they are convicted it is usually by pleading to a lesser charge than rape. The penalty is often a small fine, probation, or community service. There are numerous cases where the rapist has been reinstated by the football team.
What it comes down to is that college football is a reflection of many corporate business practices. When it comes to making money and being successful, ethics often go right out the window.
Golf: The Masters
Canadian golf pro Mike Weir getting his green jacket from Tiger Woods
The Masters Golf Tournament is held every year in early April at The Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia. The course was built in 1933 by Bobby Jones and some of his friends. Bobby Jones was one of the all-time greats in golf and back in the 1920s and 1930s he was one of the biggest names in sports. Each year the winner of The Masters receives a green jacket which is just one of the many customs associated with the tournament. The green jacket is not given to the winner of The Masters to keep and it must be returned to the club within 1 year. The Masters folks want to protect their image and they don’t want to see one of their green jackets for sale on e-bay.
The Masters and The Augusta National Golf Course like to portray themselves as examples of southern charm and hospitality but the reality is that the folks that have run this institution have a long history of racism and sexism.
It wasn’t until 1975 that black Americans were allowed to compete in The Masters. The tournament is an invitational one. Traditionally, winners of PGA tournaments in the previous year, former winners of The Masters, and golf professionals with high profiles, are invited. Charlie Sifford, a black American pro golfer, won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open and was one the best golfers on the PGA tour in the 1960s but was never invited to compete in The Masters. I wonder why?
Up until 1983 The Masters only allowed black men to caddy at their course. Touring pros could not bring their own caddies to the event. The Augusta course also didn’t allow black people to join their club until 1990 and even today there are very few black members. In total the club only has about 2 hundred members and most of them don’t live in Georgia.
If you have watched The Masters on TV you may have noticed that all the caddies have to wear white overalls similar to what garage mechanics often wear. The idea of this is supposed to be that caddies can be differentiated from the golf pros. No other golf tournament requires caddies to wear overalls. Why? Because any moron can figure out the caddie is the guy carrying the golf bag. It is disappointing that in this day and age grown men are forced to wear overalls. But then again the south in general has never been very progressive.
The Augusta course has always been a men only golf course. That is up until a year or two ago when they gave 2 women honorary memberships. What a break through! 2 women! Yes Augusta is a private club and they can do whatever they want to do and yes it is nice to watch on TV but every time I watch, knowing the history of the club, I think that the word “Masters” is more than an appropriate way  to describe the Augusta Golf Club’s history.
Why I Watch Sports
You may be thinking to yourself, why do I bother watching sports at all if I am so critical. The answer is that I am no different than the next guy in that I like the competition. Unlike some others I just don’t get blinded by it all. If my teams lose I am not deeply disappointed. I had no hand in creating the team. Win or lose. There are a lot more important things in the world to me than which sports team ends up winning it all.
In hockey I watch almost every game the Vancouver Canucks play and most games in the play-offs whether the Canucks are participants or not. I rarely watch a baseball game other than the World Series. I might watch an NBA play-off game or two. I like the final games in college basketball because each game is sudden death. I don’t really follow soccer. Not enough scoring for me. I follow the Seattle Seahawks in football but mostly avoid college football. I watch golf sometimes when it is raining out. NASCAR, figure skating, and curling bore me to tears. I usually take in part of the big 4 tennis tournaments. I still can’t figure out why people watch darts or poker on sports TV. These aren’t sports. I’m a big fan of the Canadian Football League and think the Canadian version of the game is much more exciting than the American version.  I used to watch The Tours de France bike race partly because of the pretty scenery. All in all I’ve been watching sports for almost 60 years.
I look at watching sports like watching the TV show Survivor. Who you want to win often doesn’t happen. Sometimes who you are pulling for ends up on top but that good feeling is always short-lived. Each sports season you just start again and hope. Luckily I’m not a Chicago Cubs baseball fan.

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