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Old 01.31.05, 05:11 AM   #114
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Stephen A. Smith | NHL czar forgets lessons of NBA cap

By Stephen A. Smith

Inquirer Columnist

In 1983, a time when the National Hockey League had no desire to emulate anything about the National Basketball Association, Gary Bettman was perceived as one with the potential to become like David Stern. As shrewd and astute a negotiator as they come, with the pedigree to be the quintessential nightmare for any players' union.

Back then, Bettman, along with Stern, the NBA commissioner, and Russ Granik, Stern's deputy, was in search of cost certainty, looking to stymie the huge increase in player salaries. As general counsel for the NBA, Bettman helped bring a soft salary-cap system and revenue sharing to professional sports, recognizing that it could one day lead to the collectively-bargained models that owners in both basketball and football enjoy today.

So what's wrong with Bettman now?

Stupidity? Stubbornness? Selective amnesia?

Pick one.

When you try to ram a hard salary cap down any professional sport's throat in this day and time, all of the above apply.

Let it be known the NHL players don't have all their screws in tight, either. Regardless of their aversion to any kind of salary cap - they're correct in feeling that way - they are not football or basketball players. The luxury of being contentious is not one they possess.

According to the NHL, the league generated a paltry $449 million in broadcasting revenue from both national and local contracts and new media in 2002-03, not billions. The Stanley Cup Finals on ABC last season averaged just a 2.6 rating, with the two games on ESPN registering just a 1.2 cable rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Considering those numbers and the supposedly $224 million in losses league-wide - combined with the NHL's assertion that 75 percent of team revenue was paid out in player costs - somebody had better slap some sense into Bob Goodenow, executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association and take a moment to throw two lines at him.

Right strategy.

Wrong sport.

Football, basketball and even baseball today are sports that people actually watch. For those sports, there are no collective sighs filled with apathy with the specter of a season's cancellation looming.

Yet, that doesn't negate Bettman's foolhardy approach, adopted from the moment he locked out the players in September. Nor is there any excuse for it, either, considering that he was pursued by NHL owners, specifically, because of his vast knowledge and experience as a principal negotiator in handling such circumstances.

NHL owners were aware that Bettman was hands-on in the development of the soft cap (see the NBA's Larry Bird exception) back in the 1980s. They knew that he was a principal architect of the NBA's revenue-sharing agreement back then.

Bettman's plan for cost certainty would need to be implemented in such a way that owners would still be allowed to spend to some degree, providing the players with some semblance of a free-market society.

Before the NBA's latest collective bargaining agreement, teams could exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own players. Other exceptions existed as well. And for more than a decade, before Stern was ever able to place a maximum limit on contracts and insert a rookie wage scale, a soft salary cap had been in place with little or no argument from the players.

You have to crawl before you walk. Though it may have cost the NBA 464 games during the lockout of 1998-99, no one can argue that the league has not done that.

Where Bettman is concerned, you can't stop yelling, "What is wrong with this man?"

After a 10-day strike in 1992, then a 103-day lockout in 1994-95 that eliminated 468 games and nearly half the season, the NHL now has its third stoppage in 13 years.

Guess who cares? Virtually nobody.

Fans are not salivating to see Bettman's product, mostly because of the lack of marquee players. There's a reason the league's average salary was $1.83 million last season instead of nearly $5 million, like its NBA brethren.

Bettman keeps talking about the league's state of mind, how he has the unanimous support of 30 league owners in his pursuit of a hard salary cap and revenue sharing, knowing full well that the Flyers, who love to spend, don't fall under that category.

Whom does Bettman think he's fooling?

Bettman keeps spinning and spinning, but he's going nowhere. Meanwhile, a sport that was close to shambles to begin with is now perilously close to extinction. Mainly because of a dogged commissioner who refuses to throw his players a bone.

A happy medium needs to be reached along the way. The Bettman of old would know this.

Evidently, money changes us all, not just the players we see and hear about.

Stephen A. Smith |

Lockout

Watch

136

TOTAL DAYS OF LOCKOUT

109

TOTAL DAYS

OF SEASON MISSED

11

GAMES LOST YESTERDAY

738

TOTAL GAMES MISSED

out of 1,230 regular-season games plus the 2005 All-Star Game.
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