After the jump, you can read the original version of my Friday National Post column about the fight for the future of the Nashville Preds. The one that appeared in the paper ended up being slightly cryptic after editing, partly through my own fault. Close readers of my work are likely to complain that I often say completely contradictory things about the National Hockey League and its bosses from week to week, and I have no defence against the accusation. Here's what I think I think right now:
The increasing confusion over the fate of the Nashville Predators is embarrassing for plenty of reasons, but there's one group that probably isn't quite as embarrassed as it should be: Canadian hockey fans. Mention the name "Gary Bettman" to most of us and you'll find yourself immediately dodging spittle, but when Bettman and the NHL owners locked out the players in 2005 in order to strongarm them into accepting a salary cap, most of us took the side of the insanely rich against the merely very rich. And we bought into the premise of the "independent" Levitt report commissioned by the league, which claimed that most of the teams were haemorrhaging money and could not go on doing business handing over 75% of their revenue to the players.
At the time, Forbes magazine, which conducts truly independent valuations of sports franchises, criticized the Levitt report and suggested that the correct payroll-to-revenue ratio was probably more like 66%. The NHL, in turn, suggested that the Forbes numbers were little more than imaginative fictions. What's interesting about the Preds-as-whiffleball controversy is that the Forbes valuation method pegged the value of Nashville's franchise at a mere US$134 million as recently as November.
Very well--the Jim Balsillie bid on the Predators, which is said to total around $238 million, is acknowledged on all sides to be a deliberate overpayment made as a swashbuckling gesture by an old collegiate sportsman. The idea that there is such a thing as an "overpayment" in a free market is pretty questionable: Balsillie, after all, is not the country's only hockey-crazy billionaire. Hell, he isn't even the richest hockey-crazy Canadian billionaire currently trying to acquire an NHL franchise; that honour belongs to Edmonton's Daryl Katz, the drugstore magnate whose bid of $150 million for the Oilers has so far gone unanswered. But even if you dismiss Balsillie as an aberration, you still have to consider the second-best bid now apparently being preferred out of sheer pique by Predators owner Craig Leipold. Californian William "Boots" DelBiaggio is said to have offered at least US$190 million for the team. That's a premium of 42% on the Forbes number, and it's apparently predicated on a move to Kansas City, which is (a) a place where NHL hockey has already failed once and (b) only the 31st largest media market in the United States.
If the asset-stripped Preds are worth almost 200 million bucks in Missouri, how much do you suppose the Leafs, assessed by Forbes at $332 million, could really fetch even without territorial exclusivity? Would half a billion dollars be unreasonable? Did anyone really ever think that the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan was buying control of the Buds out of sheer public-spiritedness? And what do you suppose the Rangers (worth $306M in Forbes' list despite having a crosstown rival) or the Red Wings (worth an estimated $258M in a rotting rust-belt metropolis) are worth?
Gary Bettman, for all our jeers, is no fool. We all loathe him for giving up on Winnipeg and Quebec City, but he fought like a mother bear to protect the six remaining Canadian franchises, bending league rules to permit Edmonton and Calgary to adopt distributed-ownership structures. Even old Jets fans acknowledge now that the NHL would be semi-viable in Winnipeg at best, and hardly anyone's seriously talking about Quebec at all. If the league were starting afresh today and you had to choose six permanent Canadian locations for teams, you would almost certainly select the six where its existence has been guaranteed by Bettman for the last decade. That is scarcely the work of a man bereft of vision, even if his vision isn't yours or mine.
In expecting him to give up on the growth of the game in the U.S. and start repatriating NHL franchises to Canada willy-nilly, we're asking him to abandon a plan that has worked out just fine by the only measure that matters to him--the owners' bottom line. Even after deliberately turning down the high bid for his asset, Leipold is likely to end up earning about 9% per year in nominal dollars on his original $80 million investment in the Predators. That's what we call a satisfied customer. It's little wonder that Katz, who is basically offering Forbes' book value for a flagship marque in a city growing faster than census-takers can measure, has been greeted with stony silence. And if you're a hockey player, and you agreed during the lockout to be paid on the basis of reported current hockey revenues (defined very narrowly) instead of growth in franchise value, you've got to be feeling right now like you may have dropped gloves and man-danced with the wrong S.O.B.