I was just perusing the comments section over at OilersNation this morning, and on one of Jason Gregor’s articles, amongst all the bickering about who is right and who is wrong – NHL or NHLPA – this comment stood out to me:

The point is that parents/kids PAY to play the game they love. These athletes get paid millions to play the game they love. Many of them will never have to work a “real” job in their lives. The millions of dollars they get paid come from our (the fans) pockets, directly or indirectly. As I said in an earlier thread, without fans the NHL would be as much of a business enterprise as professional handball. It’s time for fans to start letting the NHL know that. I surely will.

I’ve seen or heard some variation of this comment for months now: a lot of fans taking issue with the fact that the NHL players only make as much as they do because we, the fans, will pay to see them (be it in person or on TV), and the NHL wouldn’t make any money either.

Now I don’t know about you, but that seems like an irrelevancy to me.  Let me try to explain why:

  • The reason we, the “common people”, have to “pay to play” is very simple: the teams we play for are not businesses.  In most cases, they do not own arenas or fields or pitches or rinks, so they must rent them; this costs money.  Teams provide kit to their players; this costs money.  Players (at least here in the UK) must be insured to play; this costs money.
  • These teams do not have “owners”, they are organisations set-up and run by the same people who want to play for them – because, as the comment above says, it is the game they love.  There is usually no one man or organisation who funds these teams, they are funded by membership fees and occasionally by sponsorship from small local businesses.
  • Because they are not businesses, they are not there to make money, but to fund themselves to give the opportunity for amateur athletes to play.  Unfortunately, everything costs money nowadays.  That is just the way it is.
  • I hope to get round to doing a full post on money in pro sports, but basically the way I see it is this:  as many have pointed out, the NHL is a business; it is absolutely obvious that the players and the league wouldn’t get the money they do if the fans weren’t paying to see the games.  That’s how business works.  Could Apple survive if no-one bought their iPads, iPhones, iPods and Mac computers?  No.  Could your local corner shop survive if no-one went in to buy anything? No.  Because that’s how business works – people must buy their product for businesses to exist.
  • So to slate the NHL and it’s players for making money from the fans is, to me, irrelevant.  Yes, it is far, far away from being a necessity in life, in the same way that Apple products aren’t a necessity, but people want it, and they will buy it.
  • The NHL is, without question, the best ice hockey league in the world, and as such it is a premium product.  Teams spend more money to get or retain the better players – and we as fans tend to chastise our teams when they don’t do that – in the same way as a big business will pay bigger salaries to lure the best people for the job – here in the UK, there has been uproar during this recession over the salaries and bonuses that the chief executives of banks receive, but the unfortunate fact of life is that very few people in the world can do – or cope with – the job that they have to take on, and so that money must be offered to make it worthwhile to them.  The stress, the hours, the criticism.
  • The other reason for monetary compensation to athletes comes down to the fact that they have been dedicated to achieving their goals of being pro athletes most likely since the age of 11 or 12, with little guarantee of actually making it.  For every guy who busted a gut to make it, who worked out every day, attended several practices a week, practised his skills at home for hours every day, prioritised the sport over his own education (and hence had little backup in case the sport didn’t work out) – there are hundreds of people who did exactly the same and didn’t make it.  Even the guys who do make it, a lot of them probably don’t have many other skills other than how to be athletes, which when you consider that their careers don’t last even half as long as the average citizen, isn’t an enticing prospect.  The money has to be there to make it worthwhile, and to enable players to maintain their high level of ability.
  • For the NHL to be at the standard it is at, it’s players must be in peak condition, receive the best training, the best coaching, the best equipment, the best environment.  It’s the same in any sport.  Here in the UK, people wondered why the Great Britain cycling team was so successful at the Olympics – and it’s because the team made sure that they had small advantages over every single competitor, from how the bikes were designed, to the helmets used, to how the cyclists trained.  These advantages, no matter how small, all add up to put you on top, and in sports that is what matters.  And as mentioned, everything costs money.
  • So, teams are paying for the above mentioned “advantages” over the competition – players, trainers, coaching, environment, equipment.  They also have to pay all the staff that work for them – those who work in admin behind the scenes, accounts staff, ticket staff, the people who design and print your programme for each game (not to mention the cost of printing that particular glossy little luxury magazine), the security staff, the people in the team store, the people who design and create the team jerseys, the guys who maintain the ice/grass/court, the lighting staff, the PA announcer, the sound engineers and roadies, the janitors, the hospitality staff, the jumbotron operators (heck, the cost of that beautiful jumbotron in the first place), etc etc etc.
  • Further to this are arena costs (maintenance and possibly rent depending on the deal in place and if they own the arena), business rates/tax, replacing the seats you sit in at the game, utility bills (likely very high given the attendance at games and the amount of electricity required to run the show), cleaning products, toilet paper, etc etc etc.
  • A lot of people seem to have an issue with anyone making money off the back of what is, at the end of the day, a game.  I think Daryl Katz said it best, in an interview with the Globe & Mail with regards to the ongoing Edmonton Arena deal: “hockey is not philanthropy“.  Why should he, or any other owner, not make money from it?  What is the incentive to them to run the league as “not-for-profit”?  Attending, or watching on TV, a sports game is a luxury, a privilege – not a god-given right.  The NHL is not a charity, providing us with our dose of hockey in the same way as the Kenyan Orphans Project provides sick African children with a dose of life saving medicine.  Do people really consider it their incontrovertible right to go and watch hockey games without anyone else benefiting from it?  If that’s the case, don’t cheer for your team – they may hear you and gain some inspiration from it.  The owners are providing us with what we want – world class entertainment – in return for money.  That’s how the world works, and in my opinion, that’s how it should work, by and large.
  • At this point, some of you might be thinking I have something to gain from pro sports, and that’s why I’m defending these millionaires and billionaires.  Not so.  I’m a lowly young admin worker, trying to figure out what to do with his life, earning not a hell of a lot more than the UK minimum wage.  I can’t afford to go to many sports games – perhaps two a year, maybe three – and that’s up in the “nosebleeds”, i.e. the cheapest seats.
  • The things listed above are things that I think are kind of taken for granted when we attend these events.  There is a “chain” of sorts that must be thought of when we think of why people are charged to go and watch sports.  This might be overly simplistic, but this is how I think of it:

-People enjoy sports, it is in our nature, we always have and always will.  Not everybody, but a good portion of people.

-It is in the nature of people to be loyal to those around us, so combine that with our natural competitiveness, and we get “attached” to our local teams.

-We go to watch these teams play, to support them, to hope that they win, and to enjoy the sport.

-However, we are standing at the side of a field/frozen lake/concrete surface.  There are no seats, no toilets, no food stands, and it’s cold.  Only the most hardcore fans turn out, and even those people are probably wondering why someone doesn’t build some toilets/bring over a food stand/install some seats to make the situation more comfortable and enjoyable.

-Those that run the team hear these complaints/suggestions, and have to find funding to provide for those that offer them such support.  Toilets/food/seating costs money.  However, at first they probably do it out of generosity to those that have supported them.

-Then, due to these amenities being installed, more people turn up to enjoy the game now that it is a more comfortable experience.  More seats are required to cater to these new supporters.  This costs money, as does the upkeep on the toilets and the provision of more food/drink, and so a small charge is levied on those wishing to attend.  They enjoy the experience, so most don’t take issue with it.

-The better the facilities are, the more people attend, and in order to make the experience as good as possible, more money must be charged.

-The teams want to put out the best product they can, i.e. have the best team, so that they can attract even more supporters.  In order to get the best team, players must eventually become full-time athletes, dedicating themselves to training and practising to be the best they can.  This means they must be paid for their efforts in order to have some sort of income.  

-Dedicated owners, likely successful businessmen already, are offered, or offer themselves, to buy the teams to provide a source of extra funding.  These owners can also fund the building of bigger stadiums or arenas, which allows more spectators to watch the games, and will of course want to get something out of it themselves – i.e. profit.

-The product (i.e. the team and the sport) is at a higher quality than ever before due to the extra funding and the time the players are able to use to train.  As such, the team is more popular than ever.

  • I wouldn’t expect everybody to agree with the above, but that’s how I see it.  The owners have to provide these things to give us the optimal experience and thus to get more people through the doors.  That all costs money, and it has to be worth their while.
  • On the topic of player salaries, it’s not that I don’t consider a doctor or a soldier worthy of more pay, it’s that it’s not relevant.  It’s a different part of life.  People want doctors and soldiers to get paid more, but forget that that would require a rise in taxes or health insurance, and I know that people wouldn’t like that no matter what it’s for.  Doctor’s and soldiers get as much as they realistically can (arguably, of course), and the public don’t have a choice in whether the doctors and soldiers get that – it is taken from them via tax.  I’m not sure too many people would agree to a rise in tax in return for less disposable income, in order to pay the people in these jobs – no matter how worthwhile and admirable they are.
  • For pro athletes, it comes down to what I said above: sports are a luxury, something we choose to pay for if we want to, and don’t pay for if we don’t want to (or can’t).  That’s the entertainment industry as a whole, in a nutshell.
  • As such, how would people feel if pro athletes were paid a more “average” salary?  Let’s say $100,000 per year as the average pay, more than a lot of people earn but far more “agreeable” – good money, but not extortionate   If we use the NHL’s revenues from 2012, and say that there are about 750 NHL players, that comes to an estimate of $75m for player salaries, for the entire league, for the entire year.  That is less than 3% of current total revenues.  Would people really be OK with the players earning that much and the owners taking all the rest, minus costs?  I wouldn’t, I would consider that daylight robbery by the owners.  It has been argued in many places that “players earning 50% or more of revenues is ridiculous, something that would never happen with employees in other businesses” – that’s not true, that would happen in plenty of businesses depending on their line of work, and people also forget that the 57% figure is minus costs – but I would equally argue that players earning less than 4% of HRR (assuming HRR is around $2bn of the total $3.3bn in revenue) is just as preposterous.  Owners getting 96%?! I think people would be outraged!  I’m not sure what the salaries were in the NHL back in the 40s and 50s, but that was before there was a Players Association and I wouldn’t be surprised if the split was pretty bad.  Not that bad, but pretty bad – heck, that’s why the players set up the NHLPA in the first place, as well as for better rights.
  • Of course, you might have to factor in that revenues might be lower as a result of lower ticket prices – the result of lower player salaries – but I wouldn’t bet on it.  I think tickets would still be just as expensive, just with more profit going to the owners.

So, basically I believe complaining that the players get all their money from our pockets is an irrelevant argument – it is the fans that should carry the blame for that, not the players, nor the owners.  They are providing what we want, and we shouldn’t expect them to get nothing for it.  We, the fans, are not a charity case, nor should we see ourselves as one, and the league is not a charity, nor would it make sense for it to be seen as such.


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