Note to NHL: public money and private business do not mix

As gall goes, Gary Bettman has set new standards.

In a live interview on Hockey Night in Canada  the other day, Scott Oake apologized for even broaching the subject, and then he asked a logical question: what’s the NHL commissioner’s view of the City of Glendale’s decision to quit the agreement they had with the Arizona Coyotes?

Why did Oake feel he had to apologize? It was hot news of the moment, and he was speaking to the boss of the outfit that has had a keen interest in the matter.

Apologies or not, Bettman’s answer showed anger unbecoming of a person in his position. And it showed an arrogance that in just a couple of sentences displayed for everybody to see everything that’s wrong with professional sports on the business level.

Corporate welfare is the best description of what professional sports teams have been abusing. They’ve been getting away with public financing of new arenas, special deals, and whatever they could obtain, ripping off the (mostly unsuspecting) taxpayer all along. And, most surprising, shocking, even, they have felt they are entitled.

Which brings us to the outburst of anger one isn’t used to see in a Gary Bettman.

Unhappy council

The good members of the Glendale city council have had enough of the Arizona Coyotes shenanigans. They couldn’t get majority owner Andrew Barroway to talk to them. When they asked the minority owner, Anthony LeBlanc, about reports of some financial transactions that allegedly went against both the letter and the spirit of the deal the city had with the club, all they would get was incoherent obfuscations. Mr. Barroway, thus Mr. LeBlanc, is a busy man. He runs a hedge fund in New York, you see. The message was obvious: he hasn’t time to spare to talk to the hicks who run the city of Glendale.

So, council members decided to look for a hole that would get them out of the deal. They said so publicly that this was their plan. A few weeks later, Mr. Barroway and Mr. LeBlanc managed to find time in their preciously crowded schedules to meet with the mayor of Glendale, his deputy, and a few city officials. No coffee was served, no sandwiches were available. According to some reports, there were a couple bottles of water somewhere in the room.

That wasn’t the important part. The important part was that city representatives told Coyotes’ owners they were unhappy about the entire scenario and would like to open discussions about making a few changes here and there. The Coyotes’ owners said absolutely no way. To top it off, Mr. LeBlanc said they were ambushed. Either he’s illiterate and doesn’t know how to read regular newspapers (or their associated websites), and nobody read it to him, or he just doesn’t care what the city of Glendale has been saying rather publicly for quite some time.

If he wasn’t making it up and this was the first time Mr. LeBlanc had heard about the city’s distinct lack of happiness about the deal, it speaks volumes about his entrepreneurial incompetence.

In either case, ignorance is no excuse.

City in the poorhouse

The city of Glendale has been suffering for quite some time. It has had difficulties meeting its own financial obligations. Compared to just a few years ago, the city government’s workforce has been cut by almost 20 per cent. Enforced furloughs, vacant positions going unfilled, merging departments, you name it, the city has used all of these methods, and then some. Yet, it’s still unable to buy a new firetruck or open a new public library.

There might be studies that would find why this has been happening. There might be studies trying to figure out who or what is guilty of it all. But they are not relevant for the Arizona Coyotes soap opera. The city’s economic situation is what it is, and to be demanding $15 million annually for arena maintenance borders on the unconscionable.

That’s how simple it is.

In fact, for professional sports clubs to be asking for public handouts in the first place is unconscionable.

A bit of theory. Economy is divided into three basic spheres. They are described as core, public purpose, and business spheres. Some classify them as household, government, and business spheres. Names may differ, but other than that, it’s the same thing.

In economic theory, business sphere is strictly separated from the other two spheres. Government can (or may) use policies of economic stimuli to attract or keep an industry (a business, that is), but this just happens to be one of the must muddied areas of economics. Suffice it to say that pure economic theory frowns upon such relationships.

End of the bit of theory.

To be blunt: professional sports clubs do not create anything productive. Enthusiasm about a wicked wrist shot in hockey, or a curved (Beckham-like) shot in football (soccer, that is), or a new kind of kicking in free-style swimming, may (or may not) improve an individual’s mood. But that’s about it.

To limit an individual’s emotional well-being to watching extraordinary feats achieved by professional athletes is a dumbing-down proposition.

That’s one point of view.

To limit access to basic services that a government is supposed to provide just because said government is out of money as it had spent it on helping a professional sports club borders on the criminal.

To stay with Glendale, Arizona: what is more important to its citizens, a new firetruck, a new library, or an old and repeatedly failing hockey club? According to a recent public opinion poll, almost two thirds of Glendale’s citizens prefer the former to the latter.

Enough said?

Not according to the owners of the Coyotes, a hockey club that’s been losing money left, right and centre since the moment it landed in Phoenix in 1996. Please remember: it came to Phoenix from Winnipeg, a hockey-crazy community that had not been able to sustain it. And it came from Winnipeg to Phoenix, the place where they like their ice at the bottom of their glasses (filled with fire water, mostly), and where most of the locals can hardly care less about the fastest team game in the world.

Why Phoenix in the first place?

The strategic intent was easy to grasp: let’s have NHL hockey spread all over the Excited States. That’s the only way to get a national broadcasting contract and, thus, exposure. Alas, it seems (in hindsight) that Phoenix and environs have been doomed right from the start.

Not only that: blessed with one suspect owner after another, it seems NHL poohbahs would do well to look up in their dictionaries the real meaning of the expression: due diligence.

But the main point is simple: professional sports clubs should not be allowed to even approach governments, hats in hands, asking for taxpayer-subsidized handouts. If there is one industry where this should be forbidden by law, it’s the professional sports industry. (That, by the way, includes the Olympic Games and sundry international events, too.)

The rule should be: if you have the wherewithal to start a professional sports club, you would be logically expected to have enough money to pay for the re-zoning and building permits, for the construction itself, and for the running of the club, too. If one of these pre-conditions is not met, no permits would be forthcoming, and no taxpayer-funded subsidies, either.

And the word to such owners and leagues should be simple: no, you are NOT entitled to anything.

A minor legalistic observation: the Coyotes intend to claim that former city attorney Craig Tindall had nothing to do whatsoever with the contract between Glendale and the hockey club. That, they said they planned to say, makes the hole the city used to call the deal off null and void. They’ll have to convince a number of judges that they have a valid point. For the city, it would suffice to show that the text of the deal passed once (just once!) through said Mr. Tindall’s hands, even if it was for proof-reading purposes only.

Of course, it would be grasping at straws on the Coyotes’ part. And it would be missing two basic points.

First: the locals don’t want you. Stop behaving like a jilted lover who keeps telling her or his departing partner but you can’t leave me! Why not? Because I love you!

Instead, leave while the leaving is (still) good.

And the second point, even more important: grow up and realize that you are not entitled to anything from the public. Grow up and realize that public money and private business just do not mix. Remember that, eventually, if you persist in your attempts to blackmail the public, it may come back to haunt you.

And then, where will you be?

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