SPORTS/ESSAY

Of mice and money

Cash registers ring in hockey and baseball

BOB LEVIN December 21 1992
SPORTS/ESSAY

Of mice and money

Cash registers ring in hockey and baseball

BOB LEVIN December 21 1992

Of mice and money

SPORTS/ESSAY

Cash registers ring in hockey and baseball

BOB LEVIN

JAMES DEACON

When a hockey league sells a franchise to the Walt Disney Co., it can hardly complain about becoming the butt of bad jokes. Will Peter Pan lead the power play? Will Snow White sing the national anthem? What sort of Mickey Mouse move was this? Far from ducking such humor, Disney chairman Michael Eisner only fuelled it. The man who is bringing a National Hockey League team to Anaheim, Calif., sunny home of Disneyland, showed up at a news conference in Palm Beach, Fla., where the NHL held its board meetings, wearing a red

“Coach Goofy” hat and a “Mighty Ducks” hockey jersey. The latter comes from a Disney movie—and a proposed name of the Anaheim club. The movie, said Eisner, “did $50 million box office—that was our market research” on buying a team. It was that kind of week in sports. The startling news that the NHL was expanding to Anaheim and Miami—pumping $75 million U.S. (all fees and salaries are paid in U.S. dollars) into the league's coffers—followed baseball’s bizarre winter meetings in Louisville, Ky., which turned into a multimillion-dollar binge of free-agent signings. If nothing else, the week proved that anyone still clinging to illusions about the purity of sport is living in Fantasyland.

For the NHL, financially strapped and struggling to improve its image, the gamble was that

the game many Americans insist on calling “ice hockey” would take firm root in the Sun Belt. The new franchises, which could be up and skating by next season, will pay the same $50million entry fee that Ottawa and Tampa Bay paid last year. However, because Anaheim is within 90 km of Los Angeles, half of Disney’s fee will go to L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall for infringement of his territorial rights. The new California club will play in the 19,000-seat Anaheim Arena, which is expected to be completed by next summer. The still-unnamed Miami team, owned by Blockbuster Video mo-

gul Wayne Huizenga, will skate in the 15,000seat Miami Arena, although Huizenga mentioned plans for a new building.

Acting NHL president Gil Stein maintained that attracting ownership “with the stature and prestige of Disney and Blockbuster speaks volumes to the momentum and growth of the league.” That, at least, was the optimistic way of putting it. But the league’s board of governors spoke greater volumes the next day when it named Gary Bettman, 40-year-old senior vice-president of the National Basketball Association, as the NHL’s first commissioner. Bettman’s mandate: to sell the NHL with the same sort of whiz-bang TV and merchandising magic that has propelled the NBA from bust to boom.

There is no doubt that the NHL needs help. Several franchises, including Hartford and

Minnesota, are in financial trouble. The league suffered through its first-ever strike in the spring, with owners claiming that they would lose $150 million in the next two years if some sanity was not returned to player salaries, which now average nearly $400,000 a year. With the season in jeopardy, the two sides agreed to a one-year truce during which they would try to work out a way to limit salaries to a set percentage of income. Meanwhile, the league also made rule changes to curb the amount of fighting in the game. But hockey has not wholly shed its “goon” image, which raises issues about Disney’s plan to wrap its new franchise into its wholesome, Mickey-and-Minnie entertainment package in Anaheim.

Expansion has also raised another question: is there enough top-flight talent to fill 26 teams? Some critics say no—and point to the new Ottawa Senators’ few-win performance as exhibit A. But Toronto-based agent Don Meehan argues that, overall, “the quality of play speaks well for the talent pool. If you have the right people running the team, there should be no problem.” The league, he added, had two incentives for expansion: cash and marketing. “I think the league simply decided that, if there were people with money available, they were happy to take it. And the people they brought in are in the entertainment industry—if they think it will work, then it probably will.”

But that was cold comfort to Hamilton, Ont., a hockey hotbed that was passed over for an NHL franchise two years ago. At the time, Hamilton was expected to pay the full franchise fee of $50 million, as well as indemnities to nearby Toronto and Buffalo. But this year, the league has allowed Anaheim to pay a total of $50 million, including the $25-million indemnity to Los Angeles. The NHL’s decision last week, said Paul Hendrick, anchor of the evening sportscast for Hamilton’s CHCH-TV, “caught everyone by surprise—people here are really upset.” Despite its 17,500-seat Copps Coliseum, Hendrick said, “it’s obvious that the NHL didn’t want Hamilton. This is not a marquee city.”

Like the NHL owners, Major League Baseball owners have been crying poverty. But they chose a peculiar way to deal with it last week. While leaving open the possibility of a lockout next spring because of the game’s rampaging salary scale—an average of more than $1 million per player last season—they collectively heaped over $250 million on free agents. San Francisco signed slugger Barry Bonds to a record $43.7-million contract for six years. The Toronto Blue Jays lost pitcher David Cone to Kansas City, which showered him with $18 million over three years—including $9 million up front. Toronto rebounded with three major signings, inking Joe Carter (four years, $25 million), Paul Molitor (three years, $13 million) and Dave Stewart (two years, $8.5 million). Then, the world-champion Jays raised ticket prices by as much as $2 a seat. In the end, it was business as usual in both baseball and hockey: money talked and the fans paid.

BOB LEVIN with JAMES DEACON