Ground Zero For Sports

Rick Charlton

September 27, 2001

The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

It will be some time before we truly understand the full impact on professional sport from the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in New York.

But the near-term effect could not only be negative but perhaps dramatic and long-lived as well.

It should come as no surprise that entertainment habits in New York have changed dramatically in the wake of the attacks.

After all, the impact was to close for comfort, near at hand, not to mention shocking to the system.

Some long-time season ticket holders of the New York Giants have said they won't congregate in a football stadium again. Broadway stage workers have taken a one month 30% pay cut because New Yorkers have stopped attending productions en masse, attendance down some 70% and putting on life support such staples as Les Miserable and Phantom of the Opera.

Further from the epicenter, Speedway Motorsports in the U.S. is laying off 18% of its workforce, citing cancellations and anticipated lower attendance as reasons.

Those subtle signs of fear are not the real problem owners of professional teams, and the athletes who play for them, should be worried about.

After all, we have had war and pestilence and disasters before. Habits were altered in the short-term but the people always came back. Yes, the people always come back.

It is the economic effect of the attack that may have substantial ripple effects.

Too many professional sports priced the little guy out of their buildings in the prosperous 1990's and now a heavy price, with an economic downturn inevitable for the first time in nearly a decade, may have to be paid.

In short, pro teams are as highly leveraged to corporate support than at any other time in history. The little guy will come back. But where will the big guy be?

Airlines, which have name recognition sponsorship deals with professional sport teams, are now asking taxpayers for billions of dollars in government bailouts. The Air Canada Centre in Toronto? How does that fly with taxpayers if the Liberal Government in Ottawa hands Air Canada a cheque for $1 billion or more, some of that going to the Leafs to pay for Curtis Joseph?

No . . . . . that wouldn't be fair at all. Something would have to give.

The Ottawa Senators were already suffering from an economic malaise caused by the 19-month technology downturn with local companies like JDS Uniphase and Nortel laying off tens of thousands of people and tightening their fiscal belts. A model franchise on the ice, the Sens have seen their season tickets drop from 12,000 to 9,000. Like a lot of team's who had priced the small purchaser out of their buildings during the exuberant and prosperous 1990's, corporate season ticket support in Ottawa is more than 50% of their base.

Most professional team's bank on corporate expense accounts these days, far more than in the past, enabling seat prices to be sustained at levels higher than would normally be the case if the general public were the target. And most pro teams also rely heavily on expensive luxury boxes to tip the balance in favour of higher salaries for the entertainment, the athletes.

The NFL, NBA and major league baseball in particular rely heavily of television revenues yet the corporations paying for the advertising that underpins the entire pyramid may no longer have the cash flow to sustain their support.

The first thing to be cut in any recession - the easiest expense to terminate - is typically marketing/advertising and the frills that go with it, such as hockey seats.

As the economy turns downward, as corporations lay off thousands and look to cut expenses elsewhere, economic support for pro sports, buoyed by the never-ending stock market gains of the 1990's, looks more and more tenuous.

On the player side, an early potential casualty is the Bruins Jason Allison. Acting as his own agent, Allison was astonished to learn the Bruins were not only NOT coming up to meet his asking price of $8 million per season, but that the team had actually lowered their original offer by 30%.

Allison said the reason he was given for the cut was the economic impact of the WTC terrorist attack.

That this should come on the same day that another holdout, Val Bure in Florida, should receive a well above market value settlement from the desperate Panthers is not lost on observers of the Allison situation. And the budget constrained Senators have since signed stars Daniel Alfredsson and more importantly, Marian Hossa.

Yet we must concede, with Wall Street having its worst week since the Great Depression of the 1930's, that the economic climate that propelled professional sport to unheard of heights through the 1990's might well impact upcoming CBA talks for major league baseball.

It's too early to tell if attendance, the fear of being a target in a stadium filled with 70,000 people, will impact pro sports like the NFL, major league baseball or pro basketball, or even if it would matter to sports that are so dependent upon television revenue.

For a gate driven league like the NHL, however, climbing unemployment and a potential recession in an era when many fans can scarcely afford tickets must be sending off alarm bells through many boardrooms.

We may still wonder about the Bruins motivation in cutting their offer to Allison dramatically. It wouldn't be the first time management somewhere decided to step up the pressure on a player. And we continue to marvel at the amazing folly of paying a plugger in Martin Lapointe $5.5 million while seemingly stiffing one of the better offensive talents in the NHL in the same breath.

But we were pondering those issues long before the events of Sept. 11, 2001 overtook us.

It would be difficult to imagine even a noted skin-flint like the Bruins, however, sinking so low as to use the deaths of 7,000 people as a bargaining ploy in contract talks unless, as is the case across the corporate landscape right now, there was some reality in play.

For the NHL, an attendance driven league levered to corporate support in a time where the faithful, if they even have the money, may think twice about large gatherings, a new era may have indeed arrived.

Reality bites.

INSERTING TEENAGERS INTO A MAJOR LEAGUE LINEUP, even if they deserve to be there, remains a somewhat risky business. We speak not of the promise of today but rather the reality that all too often arrives tomorrow. The latest casualty is a still young Nik Antropov in Toronto, now on the bubble and the subject of much criticism. Whether he should have been so revered in the first place is open to debate - Eric Desjardin's snipe on Antropov during the Eric Lindros trade debacle will be remembered for many years. Yet now we see a lethargic Antropov, his skills not only in question but also his attitude, suggesting that complacency is also a problem. Unfortunately, the dilemma the Leafs face with Antropov is not an unusual fate for young phenoms thrust into a major league lineup at an early age. They often make a good first impression only to see their development stall in succeeding years. Finally, the impressionable youngster who believes all the good things he read about himself starts to believe the negative articles as well. The money grows while the hunger dies. Oleg Saprykin, a terrific talent to be sure and, if you want to know the truth, a much better bet than Antropov to make an NHL impact, is also becoming an issue in Calgary. Saprykin, now in his third Flames camp and hopeful of his second full season in Calgary, seems to have stalled out and many who had hoped him to be on the first two lines this year are beginning to bet on a trip to St. John. Sophomore slump, hardly unusual in itself, or just another kid who was pushed to early? Which finally brings us around to Chuck Kobasew, dynamite so far in the pre-season. On his early play he's moved close to landing a job in Calgary. But even if he earns it, is that the best move the Flames could make with this player? David Tanabe, Scott Gomez and others are around to show it's not impossible to make the early move upwards. But the odds state that Kobasew should go to Kelowna for the coming season in spite of his success.

THE GOOD NEWS FOR VAL BURE was a summer trade to Florida where he can realize a life-long dreaming of playing with his brother Pavel. The bad news: Olli Jokinen, the poster boy for first round draft busts, appears to be his centre, with rookie Kristian Huselius as his left wing. 

WITH TRAFFIC WAITING UP TO 12 HOURS at some U.S./Canada border crossings, the hard working folks who transport NHL equipment from destination to destination are probably facing some long nights as well. The U.S. has 9,000 personnel watching the Mexican border but only 500 guarding the Canadian frontier just as fingers are being pointed at us as being a terrorist haven. It's not going to get any easier in time. The enhanced scrutiny will be permanent. Within the U.S., some teams are expected to charter buses between some nearby locations in the U.S. rather than fly - which, when you think about it, might be a nice equalizer for all those bum paralyzing flights the western teams have to take.

BORIS MIRONOV, WHO FIGURED TO BE a bug on Brian Sutter's windshield, has apparently turned up in Chicago fit, trim and eager to please. We'll believe it when we see it but a motivated Mironov - a rare sight the last few years - is a dynamite player and would be bad news for Flames fans checking their rear-view mirror for the oncoming Hawks.

"WE'RE NOT GOING TO WIN TOO MANY 5-0 GAMES. We're going to have to grind it out 2-1." Oilers forward Rem Murray adjusting to life post- Weight. GM Kevin Lowe is preaching something different but at least the players can recognize that they aren't the same team they were last year. That in fact is also bad news for the Flames as they might have been counting on an early season identity crisis pulling the Oilers backward in the standings.

MANY SPORT VENUES THROUGHOUT North America saw visibly heightened security in the last week but a couple of visits by myself to the Saddledome revealed a decidedly normal venue. A few more cops in the foyer? Maybe.

``THE KIND OF SKILL HE HAS IS HARD TO FIND." Bobby Clarke talking about Pavel Brendl, whom the Flyers acquired from New York as part of the Eric Lindros trade. Brendl is indeed fortunate to have landed with the one NHL team that can best resurrect his floundering chances. The Flyers are huge, very talented and offensively oriented which is a perfect place to point Brendl in the right direction. Say what you want about Bobby Clarke and many will but he's back in the small circle of Stanley Cup contenders once again.

"I DON'T THINK THE TERRORISTS ARE DONE. They're going to make it a very public event. A Monday night football game, a big game everyone is watching and all of a sudden everyone will be dead. I have to keep working and I have to keep flying. I don't have to go to a Giants game."- John Stefanelli, NY Giants season ticket holder since 1975, talking to CNN.

"THEY DON'T PAY ME TO COACH EXHIBITION GAMES." Wings coach Scotty Bowman when asked why he watched a recent game from the press box. If that's the case then maybe fans shouldn't have to pay to see exhibition games.