- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2004

It is a sad situation when a core job description of one’s occupation is to trash the company product.

But that is precisely where NHL commissioner Gary Bettman finds himself as hockey spirals toward a seemingly inevitable lockout this September. In trying to make his case for significant salary restraints, Bettman has spent months telling a woeful tale about the wretched financial condition of hockey.

The latest move came three days ago when Bettman released the findings of a study conducted by Arthur Levitt Jr., former chairman of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. Levitt reported the NHL posted an operating loss of $272.6million for the 2002-03 season and is on a “treadmill to obscurity.”

“The condition of the league is as we’ve been portraying it,” Bettman said. “To describe [the league as something] he wouldn’t invest in under the current economic system is, to the say the least, very sobering.”

Baseball fans should be getting a strong sense of deja vu from Bettman, and it has nothing to do with Yogi Berra. Despite Bettman’s claims to the contrary, hockey’s top boss is working from the same labor blueprint used by Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

A recap of the similarities to date:

• Bettman pushed a strong pro-hockey message during much of the early and mid-1990s, a period of significant expansion for the NHL. When the well of expansion fees ran dry, salaries continued to escalate and financial losses deepened, Bettman quickly turned his tone negative.

Selig did precisely the same thing in 2000, two years after baseball’s last expansion. Selig began to tone down his talk about “a great renaissance” in baseball and elevated the calls “to fix our economic problems.”

• Faced with massive resistance from the union over his fiscal characterizations of hockey, Bettman reached out to Levitt in an attempt to bring in his “vast experience and unquestioned integrity.”

Selig did the same thing in 1999, forming the Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics. Chaired by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, the panel was designed to be an independent, unfettered look at baseball’s fiscal condition. And just as Levitt simply echoed several years of Bettman comments, the baseball panel differed from Selig’s prior statements in no meaningful way.

Both reports were released in similar upscale Manhattan hotels to maximize media attention to the results. And in both instances, the respective players’ unions immediately challenged the findings and methodology used, and had no input into the reports’ development. But without any other available sets of financial figures to compare against, the league-commissioned reports become the de facto standard for public discussion.

• NHL team owners are forbidden from publicly discussing labor matters under threat of a $1million fine. Selig imposed the same ban and potential penalty in early 2001.

• Much of Selig’s labor platform was based on his aim to provide “hope and faith” to every team, regardless of market size or payroll. One of Bettman’s oft-repeated goals has been to create an economic system “that supports all 30 teams in their current markets.”

The similarities between Bettman and Selig are by no means surprising. Both sports suffer from a cavernous gap in spending between large-market and small-market teams. The players’ unions in both sports are among the very strongest of any labor groups in North America. Both Bettman and Selig are struggling to get their sports out from a 10-figure mountain of accumulated debt.

After narrowly averting a shutdown to the 2002 season, Selig landed a labor deal that most view as a quintessential compromise pact. The moderate agreement gives teams increased revenue sharing and the threat of the luxury tax to provide some level of deterrence on high-end salaries. Players retained their free-market status and guaranteed contracts, do not work under a salary cap and have the weakest drug testing program in pro sports.

The effects of the new baseball labor pact to date are mixed. Free agent signings have fallen to the point where union officials are considering a collusion grievance. Competitive balance has increased substantially and the pennant chase of last summer and fall was unquestionably the best in years. But skepticism remains about whether revenue sharing recipients are truly using all of those funds to improve baseball operations.

Selig, after years of strident talk toward the union, has at last seemed to grasp that improving baseball’s economics will take many years and several labor deals. Bettman, at least for now, still is aiming for a one-shot deal that will provide an instant panacea for hockey.

“It has been the legal prerogative of the players to take the current labor deal out to its full term,” Bettman said. “In the same fashion, it is the legal right of the owners, after the deal ends [Sept. 15], to get together collectively and say ‘enough is enough.’”

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