The newest brand of humor in sports is the "pro hockey in trouble" joke. For example:
Do you know how the Cleveland Barons are going to bounce back in the National Hockey League? Owner Mei Swig is planning to tie each of his players to his check.
Did you hear that the World Hockey Association is requiring that all its teams make their road trips on "red-eye" flights? They've signed an exclusive endorsement contract with a charter airline called "Fly by Night."
After years of assuming that full arenas, a steady supply of talent at bargain-basement prices and prosperity were guaranteed, the lords of pro hockey bumbled and spent their way into a financial crisis that is no laughing matter.
The industry has been paying for indiscriminate expansion and bidding for players between the two rival leagues. The NHL has come to regret its longtime haughty disdain for the paying customer and neglect of the fundamentals of public relations, propmotion and marketing.
Attendance in many NHL cities is down alarmingly this season. The reasons: competitive imbalance between established and expansion teams, lack of television coverage, high ticket prices and perhaps an overemphasis on winning by intimidation rather than by the precision skating and passing that, at their best, make the sport such a glittering spectacle.
Some observers believe that the proliferation of international contests have contributed to the decline in attendance by taking the gloss off regular-season games. That may be a factor in Canada, but in the U.S. it is probably less important than competition from TV's Charlie's Angels and other diversions available at no cost.
Others have argued that hockey does not now have a superstar with enough electricity to pack arenas on the road, as Julius Erving does in the National Basketabll Association. In the past there were Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr. There are still fabulously and talented players, but now that Hull and Howe are past their prime in the WHA and Orr is sidelined more often than not with a wrecked knee, no player commands regular SRO crowds.
Meanwhile, the stubborn refusal by some NHL hard-liners to even consider merger with the WHA; reckless escalation of salaries; sometimes-inept management; steady increases in the fixed costs of operation, and the absence of substantial TV revenue to compensate for dwindled ticket sales have led to manifestations of economic panic.
The books of most teams are splattered with ink the color of blood. Leauge officials confirm that at least seven of the WHA's 11 teams and as many as 11 of the NHL's 18 clubs are currently operating at a loss.
Insiders guess that in the NHL, only the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres are making money. In the WHA, presumably only the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, New England Whalers and Indianappolis Racers have a chance to finish the year in the black, contingent on playoff revenue.
Several influential NHL executives insist the league's crisis has bottomed out. They claim the danger signals were recognized months ago, corrective steps were taken, and the league is now well on the road to fiscal recovery.
"The wherewithal to handle our financial problems exists within the individual ownerships," said John Ziegler, NHL chairman of the board, who admits that his own club, the Detriot Red Wings, is still suffering because of poor performance on the ice and at the gate.
"There has been a change in momentum in attendances in the last 45 to 60 days, throughout the league," added Ziegler. "The races for playoff spots have gotton more interesting. Our Monday night 'Game of the Week' has gotton good response. Some franchises which been labeled trouble spots have been straightened out and are not troublesome at the moment."
It may be, as Ziegler and some of his colleagues suggest, that there is a time lag in the public perception of pro hockey's woes, so that the industry has already climbed from rock bottom at the time most people are just learning of the gravity of the sis.
Certainly the case that awakened the man in the street was the soap opera of the Cleveland Barons, who tottered perilously close to extinction for two weeks before finally killing Snidely Whiplash's power play.
The Barons became a cause celebre before being bailed out Feb. 23, 58 minutes into the 11th hour, by an infusion of $1.3 million, including an extraordinary $600,000 loan from the NHL Players Association.
Such travails were expected in the WHA, the Johnny-come-lately league that has astounded doomsayers by lasting five years. It has been a madcap exercise in deficit spending, franchise shifts and ownership changes euphemistically called financial restructing as stable as the ball at the end of a seal's nose. Therefore it wasn't surprising that:
The Minnesota Fighting Saints collapsed two months ago, in midseason. (These were the latterday Fighting Saints, moved to Minnesota this season from Cleveland, where they were the Crusaders. The original Fighting Saints collapsed in midseason in February, 1976.)
The Houston Aeros nearly had a mutiny when it was revealed that only the Howe family (father Gordie, sons Mark and Marty) received checks when the team missed its Feb. 15 payroll.
Several teams, including Indianapolis, whose games are well-attened, had to ask their players to defer salary payments.
But the plight of the 59-year-old NHL, long considered the most stable of pro leagues, was a rude awakening. It had not had a franchise failure since the Brooklyn Americans disbanded after the 1942 season, or a midseason dropout since its maiden season, when the Montreal Wanderers withdrew after six games because their rink burned to the ground on Jan. 2, 1918.
In an age when pro sports franchises have become moveable feasts and famines, the NHL did not have a single shift from the time the Americans expired until this season, when the Kansas City Scouts became the Golorado Rockies and teh California Golden Seals became the ill-fated Barons of Cleveland.
Indeed, the NHL enjoyed nearly 100 per cent capacity attendance during the postwar years when it had only six teams, in Boston, New York, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit and Chicago.
THen came expansion, The Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, California Seals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings paid $2 million apiece to join the league as it doubled in size in 1967. The price of admission spiraled to $6 million for Vancouver and Buffalo in 1970, the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders in 1972 and the Washington Capitals and Kansas City in 1974.
Plans for expansion to 20 teams with the addition of Denver and Seattle in 1976 were abandoned because of problems with existing teams. Hansas not quick to find a Rockie Mountain High in its new home, though the situation there has improved dramatically in recent weeks.
The Oakland-based Golden Seals, having lost $11 million in a decade that included 1 1/2 years of emergency operation by the league, were supposed to find good times as the Barons under Swig's ownership on the shores of Lake Erie. Instead, they nearly re-enacted the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The Barons were the most visible example of a financial plague, but other evidence is abundant:
Minor league hockey is dying in the manner of minor league baseball. Few teams are renewing minor leagues' contracts and Pittsburgh, to highlight the extreme case, presently has a four-man farm system; two skaters at Hershey, Pa., and two goaltenders in the International League. Future plans for the minors seem geared strictly to developing promising youngsters.
Boston, which had 117 consecutive sellouts a few years ago, has had only two in 31 home dates this year, a striking example of what has happened to NHL attendances. "No-shows" have also multiplied. Detroit, for instance, regularly announces paid tickets that are close to double turnstile counts.
Atlanta couldn't have made its Dec. 15 payroll without Christmas gifts in the form of $25,000 blocks of tickets purchased by companies strongarmed by Georgia Gov. George Busbee and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, who pleaded the city's major league image would suffer if the Flames were forced to burn elsewhere.
Busbee's plan to sell 40 blocks in this manner might have bogged down if the Flames players hadn't chipped in 1 1/2 per cent of their salaries and bought $25,000 worth of tickets that they donated to the state for employee give-aways - a splendidly conceived and tax deductible public relations gesture that helped stimulate $650,000 in sales that kept the franchise solvent.
St. Louis, squeezed by an unfavorable rent and tax structure in The Arena and a sharp drop in attendance, spread the Blues by dismising a senior vice president, publicity director assistant arena manager, director of ticket sales, plus several other sales and secretarial personnel on Feb. 1.
There are random examples. Other franchises have similar difficulties and have been looking over their shoulders to see if the wolf has yet arrived on the doorstep.
Harry Neale, who coached the original Fighting Saints and now directs the WHA New England Whalers, said flatly: "It's a fact that a number of teams in our league are struggling like a sonofagun, and probably the same number in the NHL are. Unless the two leagues get together, there are going to be more franchise failures.
"Everybody in the industry has got to take a hard took at why it's happening. Ticket prices are too high, and they have to be because we have two drafts and a kid who has never passed a puck in either league is making $100,000. Then it's pretty tough to tell the 15-year veteran he can't make that, and your payroll goes out of sight.
"It's not worth the $12 or $13 the crack teams are asking to watch anybody play hockey. It's just too much money. It's a $50 evening at best, and there are a lot of places you can go for 50 bucks. And we're asking people to do it 40 times a year.
"I know there's a great deal of pride in the NHL, and there should be. They've been a great league over the years. But I hope economic sanity prevails because there are a bunch of teams in the WHA, including the Whalers that have waited five years and aren't going to fold. There will be casualties here and there, but the stronger teams are not going to disappear.
"The mergers in football and basketball came reluctantly, as I recall, but the problems were solved. I don't know why hockey can't do the same," Neale said. "It will be complicated, but when I look around and see teams drawing 7,000 in Chicago and Detroit, 3,000 in Cleveland, it's just common sense that the well isn't that deep.
"The pendulum has got to swing back. The players will still be a helluva lot better off than they were, but the ones who have played the last five years will just have to look at that period as a bonanza," Neale said. "Just like the stock market was great for awhile, and now it's not bad. The salaries in hockey have to get back to the 'not bad' level."
Owners, too, will have to be more realistic. Many lost sight of the bottom line and now, to avert disaster, they must operate their teams with the same business acumen most of them displayed in getting rich enough to be able to buy a roster of sharp blades as a hobby.
Some of the areas they will have to examine carefully:
PLAYER SALARIES. Hockey players once constituted the breadline of pro sports, but no longer. The adverage salary of hired hands is $86,000 in the NHL, $55,000 in the WHA. Salaries represent about half of most team budgets. Most owners agree with NHL president Clarence Campbell's estimate that for a profitable operation, they should represent 31 or 32 per cent of budget.
TELEVISION.Neither league has a network TV contract in the U.S. and many teams are without even a local TV outlet. NHL Services, the league properties division, has arranged an independent network and is producing a Monday night "Game of the Week." It sells commercial time and whatever revenues are left after covering production costs will be split among the teams. The program is given to the local stations, which have a number of minutes to sell locally.
This "independent route" is not nearly as lucrative as the NHL's former agreements with regular commercial networks. CBS televised NHL games for two years and NBC for three, but the Sunday afternoon telecasts were scrapped after the 1974-75 season because of minuscule ratings and apathy in regions of the country with little interest in hockey.
The "Game of the Week" is also giving hockey needed exposure. Washington Caps president Peter O'Malley, one of the enlightened young executives in the sport, thinks that national TV is crucial to the pro game's future: "There are still many areas of the country that don't understand hockey and aren't familiar with the rules," he said. "TV is important from the standpoint of initiating those areas and thereby expanding our market.
"After we've educated the public, the TV priorities might be reversed, as they have been for pro football. Then the revenues each team derives from it might be more important than the exposure."
Owners also must confront the question of altering the game to suit a TV format, "Hockey is deisgned to be viewed live," said O'Malley. "Because the action is continuous, with line changes made on the fly and no timeouts, it is not well-suited to inserting TV commercials. The fact that we have two 15-minute intermissions doesn't help. But we have to decide how important television is to us and how it can best be accommodated."
DULL GAMES. Probably the primary reason for shrinking attendance is the proliferation of uninspiring games.
Expansion diluted the talent enormously, and short-sighted, stocking of expansion teams led to a woeful competitive imbalance. New teams were drafted from the bottom of existing team rosters and have played like it.
The established powers are now paying for their selfishness. When expansion teams visit Montreal's Forum, for example, they are greeted by something not seen there for years; empty seats. Also, young audiences; it is not like the old days when no one under 40 could get a seat, and tickets were passed from generation to generation like precious family heirlooms.
Another factor is that the style of play has changed. The Philadelphia Flyers made violence and bullying more valued than intricate teamwork. Weak teams realized that their only hope of winning lay not in setting up plays, but in getting the puck out of their zone as fast as possible and shotting as often as possible. The upshot has been games filed with icing and offsides infractions, endless faceoffs and tedium. Rag-tag teams have introduced the yawn to what should be a fast and absorbing game.
The parade of dull games and minor leaguers in big-league uniforms has had hidden chain-reaction effects. "There was a time in the NHL when fans knew that the only way they could get to see the good teams was by buying season tickets," pointed out Neale. "Now there are so many dog games that season-ticket sales are down. Fans know they can go to almost any arena on the day of a game and get tickets. Teams have given up that incentive to buy season tickets and that's a tough thing to regain."
SCHEDULING/REALIGNMENT. One way to stimulate interest would be to shift from the present balanced schedule, in which each team plays every other an approximately equal number of times, to a schedule that would emphasize intradivision play and rivalries.
The Caps are in the Norris Division with Montreal, Pittsburg, Los Angeles and Detroit. O'Malley would like to see a more regional grouping with Boston, the two New York teams and Philadelphia. "Those teams draw very well here," he says, "and we're comfortable with the fact that Philadelphia fans come down here with their team. That indicates the basis exists for rivalry."
Howard Baldwin, managing general partner of the WHA Whalers, dreams of seeing one major league in prohockey, with his Hartford-based franchise in a division with the New York clubs, Boston, Philadelphia and possibly Washington. "That would save us a big chunk of our current $250,000 travel budget," he said. ". . . We could make all our road trips by bus."
TICKET PRICES. They are high all over. "Ticket prices in entertainment are a problem, whether it's Ford Theatre, Kennedy Center or Capital Centre," said O'Malley. "When you have excessive talent costs whether the talent is Rex Harrison or the Beach Boys or Gerry Meehan, ticket prices are going to reflect it.
LOCAL PROBLEMS. There are a variety of local problems that add to the financial burden of certain teams.
Some have long-standing debts that are accruing interest. The Islanders, successful on the ice and at the box office, are strapped by a high payroll and payments on the $5 million territorial indemnification fee they agreed to pay the Rangers, on top of their regular $6 million league entry fee.
The teams entering the NHL from 1970 on agreed to pay $1.5 million down and $4.5 million over a five-year period. Several including Washington, Atlanta and Kansas City (Colorado), had payments suspended when hard times hit. Washington recently made arrangements to pay off its remaining indebtedness at a substantial discount (thought to be 50 per cent) in exchange for accelerated cash payments. At least one other team has made a similar deal and others are expected.
MERGER. One potential remedy to common problems would be an amalgamation of the NHL and WHA that would eliminate the shakiest franchises, put well-financed teams in the best markets, de-escalate the bidding war for talent and provide a point of departure for realignment.
There are a number of formidable stumbling blocks to merger, which would be complex because the laws and courts of two countries are involved. Campbell, the strong-wiled, 68-year-old NHL president, has vowed, "We will never do that (merge), never." Other old-line NHL executives seem similarly adamant.
The three Canadian teams in the NHL - Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver - have an attractive network TV package in Canada, revenues that are not shared with U.S. teams. They reportedly oppose merger partially because they do not want to share with any of the four Canadian WHA teams - Quebec, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary - that might survive an amalgamation.
The NHL players Association, which in 1973 forced the leagues to abandon exploratory merger talks with the threat of an antitrust suit, signed a wide-ranging, five-year collective bargaining agreement with team owners in October, 1975. It is expressly terminated if a merger takes place.
But both Alan Eagleson, agent for hockey's brightest lights and the executive director of the NHL Players Association, and Ron Roberts, his less-influential WHA Players Association counterpart, are more receptive to an accommodation between the leagues than they were a year ago. They clearly recognize that if the sport's financial crunch is not solved, a reduction in jobs and salaries will be dictated by the simple laws of economics.
Informal merger talks are now going on. Baldwin and Cincinnati's Bill DeWitt representing the WHA, have recently met with Eagleson.
DeWitt has been signing his Stingers to long-term contracts, admittedly to have them in hand when he petitions for NHL entry. The scuttlebutt is that the owners of the Calgary Cowboys, who cannot realistically be profitable in their 6,445-seat arena, are keeping the team alive only to be paid to vanish when a merger takes place. Other tales of scouting for capital and jockeying for postmerger position are rampant.
Baldwin does not think that a merger would bring down the salaries of top players, but it could eliminate the extravagant bonuses paid to untested rookies.
Meanwhile, both leagues have been making moves to cut costs. The WHA has limited the size of active rosters to 25 players. NHL clubs have also cut the number of players they have under contract back from in excess of 60 to an average of about 30. This has reduced payrolls.
Both leagues have tried to implement better promotion and marketing techniques and have encouraged communication between front offices and sharing of successful ideas among franchises. This is particularly important in the NHL where, as O'Malley says, "the extent of marketing used to be picking up the telephone to take ordes or rudely telling callers that none were available."
O'Malley is bullish on pro hockey's prospects for revitalization. "I think we've gone through an extremely troubled time and have now reversed the trend and are headed toward a strong recovery," he said. "Right now that's more a gut feeling than anything else, but I think next year's figures will bear it out.
"I participated in a series of meetings with the players at the All-Star Game in Vancouver in January and that's the basis of much of my optimism," the Capitals' president added."The players demonstrated a solid awareness and appreciation of our fiscal problems, and that's really where it's at. The fact that people like Alan Eagleson and the players recognize the gravity of the problems and want to cooperate in solving them is the biggest single step toward solution."
Consider this statement from Bob Stewart, acting captain and player representative of the Cleveland Barons:
"Players are going to have to get used to accepting less, as a matter of survival. The individual is going to have to change, and I think it will bring up the standard of play. Players are going to have to work harder to get a raise. Nowadays players get paid so high they don't have that extra incentive they would if they were told, 'Have a good year and you'll get a $10,000 raise.'"