August 27, 2009
"The real head scratcher is the NHL proposal and the relocation clause. The NHL has consistently opposed Waterloo billionaire Jim Balsillie's conditional $212.5 million bid to buy and relocate the Coyotes to Hamilton. The NHL has repeatedly stated the Coyotes can thrive in Phoenix with the proper ownership, notwithstanding the fact the franchise hasn't turned a profit in 12 seasons since relocating there from Winnipeg." - The Hamilton Spectator, Aug. 27.
A head-scratcher? Really?
The NHL's decision include a clause in its $140 million bid (Mirtle with a nice breakdown) for the Phoenix Coyotes that could have the team relocate after next season is perfectly in keeping with its company line since the start of this ordeal: That owner Jerry Moyes was bailing on an ongoing process to change the economic conditions for the franchise through negotiations with Glendale and securing new ownership; and that if the process didn't result in conditions under which the franchise could thrive, then relocation would be on the table.
Now that the NHL has had to step in with its own bid, the knives are out for its supposed hypocrisy. The problem with these critics slaying the reputations of Bettman and the NHL this morning is that they think this is all about Phoenix and Hamilton ... when it's actually all about Bettman and the NHL.
Here's Gary Bettman at a Wall Street Journal sports commissioners' summit on May 6:
"This is not about whether or not we want a franchise in Southern Ontario. This is not whether or not Mr. Balsillie would make a suitable owner that the owners would approve. This is about the League's rules, and the enforceability of our rules ...
"This is more about the tactic and the enforcement of League rules than it is about the economic condition of the club, which we believe can, with new ownership and with the accommodations the city of Glendale is prepared to make, we think can succeed.
"We generally try to avoid relocating franchises unless you absolutely have to. When a franchise is in trouble, you try to fix the problems. That's what we did in Pittsburgh and Ottawa and Buffalo prior to our work-stoppage. That's what we did when the perception was that five out of the six Canadian franchises, around the turn of the century, were in trouble. We fix the problems; we don't run out on cities."
Complete mistruths about Southern Ontario and Balsillie aside -- this is still about protecting expansion fees and a more-than-personal grudge in many ways -- what Bettman said there is what the NHL has done with its bid (and, depending on what you believe, with a puppet bid from Jerry Reinsdorf): Address what it sees as the team's debts; attempt to "fix the problems" with the Coyotes' lease; and then, should the franchise appear to be unsalvageable, "you absolutely have to" move it to a city of the League's choosing in a way that's compliant with its rules.
It's something Bill Daly reiterated to the Hamilton Spectator in today's edition:
"We want to sit down with the City of Glendale and see if we can come up with a 'win-win' for the franchise. We haven't been involved in those types of discussions to this point. But if we (or any of the other local bidders) aren't successful in doing that, we are prepared to consider offers that would entail relocation of the franchise."
Could one of those "local" bidders be Jerry Reinsdorf, back in the picture after NHL-led mediation on the team's lease? It's been speculated. Could it be the Ice Edge group, offering $150 million in the upcoming auction for the team? Perhaps. To say there aren't any bidders for the franchise isn't exactly true; there just aren't any willing to ante up under the current conditions and in the expedited timeline set by the court.
But again: It's not about Phoenix.
It's about the NHL fighting to save the fundamentals of its old-boys' club from mavericks like Balsillie, and attempting to ensure its current and any future NHL cities that spending hundreds of millions on a new arena isn't a fruitless gesture when a debt-laden owner can flush it down the pipes with one relocation bid from a billionaire. Whether that's a worthy fight or a desperate attempt to keep its dirty laundry private depends on your impression of the League's overlords.
Does the National Post really believe there's a chance in hell that Bettman and Balsillie make peace "get over the bad blood and reach some kind of a compromise" after this end-run for one of the NHL's properties? A property to which, effectively, Balsillie and Moyes have dealt a death blow?
(On top of what CNBC's Darren Rovell sees as "plummeting" values for NHL franchises now that the books are open in court.)
Sure, we can all tar and feather the NHL for its sunshine about the supposed health of the Coyotes last season; although the notion that the NHL wasn't working to fix Phoenix's problems was is patently false when Bettman was actually scheduled to meet with Moyes about potential new owners around the time of the bankruptcy filing (or so the commish said in that Wall Street Journal piece).
Even if the NHL takes over the team, defeating Balsillie in bankruptcy court, the league's tone of advocacy will soon change. For starters, the NHL will have to ante up at least $140 million for privilege of spending another season in Glendale, a season that will be full of horrific financial losses.
Contrary to popular belief, sports fans in Arizona are not stupid. They feel no civic obligation to cheer or spend money on the local teams. They will not assemble like sheep just to keep a team afloat. In a tenuous economy, they will not buy tickets for a hockey team that may not be here one year from now.
The uncertainty is wreaking havoc on sponsorship sales. The first preseason home game is less than three weeks away, and by then, Jerry Moyes' fleet of trucks could be hauling hockey sticks to Hamilton, Ontario. If you want to know the sickening sound of silence, try to earn a living selling Coyotes tickets.
As it always does in these backroom or courtroom melodramas in the NHL, it all comes back to the fans. The ones in Hamilton used as props for a second (or is it third) time. The ones is Arizona who seem to be an afterthought in all of this because they don't fill their building and many of our friends north of the border think their yokels unappreciative of "their" game.
If they feel powerless now, just wait until this team is playing in an Anschutz-owned arena in Kansas City come 2012. Heck, they could even stay in the Western Conference.