The NHL, The Premier League and the ESL… Time For Change?

Brodie’s Thoughts

In the illustrious words of Homer Simpson “That was fast…” With the soccer world up in arms over the proposed Super League, comprised of six power house British Premier League clubs and a number of vaunted European squads, the guys recently discussed its incredibly tumultuous, and rapid demise. It did however yield some positives: the intriguing question of should North American sports adopt the relegation format of European leagues? It’s an entertaining prospect to think of, though ultimately about as pragmatic as wearing running shoes to play in the NHL.

As the old adage goes, “The answer to all your questions is money.” John Oliver eloquently expressed this sentiment when explaining football to David Letterman, ‘They’ve managed to work the class system into sports.” The elites have established the rules, and the rules are for the elites. Period. There is no salary cap. No revenue sharing. No desire for parody. In fact, over the last forty years only a handful of clubs have won the English title, all of which are instantly recognizable names (Leicester City perhaps the lone outlier). It’s created a world where the other fan bases know they have no chance at winning a title, they’re just happy to be there. This is anathema to all North American sports fans… Ok, maybe not in Buffalo… but you get the idea. To quote Herm Edwards “You play to win the game!” This intrinsic belief is echoed in the sentiments of North American sports fans and ownership groups.

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Does it always work out…*cough 1967*…cough…? However, do you think the Leafs, Habs, Bruins or Rangers who’ve written revenue sharing checks amounting to tens of millions of dollars over the years in order to keep other lagging franchises afloat want, or should have to put up with, a system that would demote them while simultaneously punishing them from using their financial might to avoid this fate? Good luck getting approval from Jeremy Jacobs on that one… Now, technically there are no assurances against the likes of Man. United, Man. City, Chelsea, Liverpool etc. being relegated, it’s just that, they’re assured. They can spend whatever they like to field the best possible team and the probability that they’d fall so far down the table as to suffer the ignominious fate of demotion is so absurd it probably wasn’t worth typing that sentence.

These are among the most valuable sports franchises in the world. They’re not about to jeopardize that. The rich get to be the rich, and run the league accordingly. Lesser clubs are often kept afloat by ‘transfer payments’, selling star players to richer clubs as they can no longer afford them, while they languish in obscurity, scrapping to just stay in the top division which, understandably, is in itself is a point of pride.

Now, granted, there is a certain value in having to earn a spot, and the threat of relegation keeps a huge sense of drama in the season. It speaks to the essence of competition and sport itself, and there has been talks of making NHL teams at the bottom earn the first overall pick based on points collected late in the season to heighten the excitement. However, the reality is at the highest levels sport is now big business and the difference is soccer fans are so die-hard, the game so beloved that they will support their local team regardless in a way hockey just isn’t embraced across America.

There is so much money in ‘the beautiful game’ that they can keep a host of clubs at the top level, and even one or two below that, and still make a mint which North American leagues just reasonably can’t. This isn’t to say it’s a license to print money for everyone. Getting demoted hurts in a big way as you lose TV money and have to cut salaries, but they aren’t so decimated that they can’t get back up to the top level or that player salaries plummet off pitch. If the NHL employed a similar structure it would cripple many of the teams, which some would argue would be better for the product, but that’s another discussion entirely.

Now, the counter argument is to get rid of the salary cap, allow teams to spend what they like and scrap revenue sharing. Each team for itself. Realistically though, this would hamper the league and numerous markets across all North American sports immeasurably.

Let’s look at the leagues right below the NHL, MLB, & BPL to illustrate just how drastic the realities are: The average AHL salary is 50 thousand dollars a year. According to The Athletic the average AAA ball player made 15 thousand in 2018. The average Championship salary is 29 thousand pounds… per week. If you took an NHL player on a one way deal making 1.5 million per year, and demoted him to the second tier league, whatever it may be, how exactly could you expect him to take that pay cut? It’s beyond idiotic. The finances just don’t add up.

Now, there are examples of relegation in hockey ie. the SHL in Sweden. However, the salaries are nowhere near the same ball park as the NHL so the trickledown effect and expenses are so drastically different, you can’t justifiably compare them. If fans in Arizona and Florida hardly attend games now, what do you think will happen when they wind up in some second tier division without the same exposure? You can’t charge a $600 million expansion fee then let the team risk demotion. Now, some have suggested you charge less and start them in the lower tier, and allow them to work their way up, but not only would the desire for teams to enter the league reduce dramatically, the financial realities would have to drastically change, and there’s no appetite for that.

The NHL doesn’t want this either. Think about it, in the last decade they would have seen Toronto, Detroit and LA all vanquished: Two lynchpin franchises and another of their largest markets. This isn’t healthy for any league, which is why the Premiership has the structure it does to protect their biggest assets, and why the rich teams, knowing their worth tried to eschew the lesser lights and chase the dream of the super league and even more money to begin with. Yes, a lot of the issues against this go to the fundamental lack of structure and desire in North American fan bases, but ultimately they don’t exist, nor seem at all feasible.

This applies to baseball and basketball as well. There’s only so much money to go around at the top end and there’s no interest in diluting that pile. Revenue sharing and a farm system are an inherent part of these leagues because of the economic realities, and expanding the top tier would hamper things in a massive, irreparable manner. Soccer is the largest sport in the world for a reason and the economics work for it to have this structure in place. The only way to make it feasible on this side of the pond would be to dramatically alter the finances and structure of the top leagues in such a way as to make them unrecognizable, and ultimately far less profitable. The reason things are the way they are in North American sports is because it’s the most pragmatic given the financial and competitive realities.

Mike’s Thoughts

There are two different questions here: is there merit in the European Super League (ESL) idea? And should league pyramids be introduced in North American sports. Let’s look at the ESL first and draw the best comparison we can while staying in the world of soccer. In 1992 the Premier League was formed under slightly similar circumstances. A breakaway leave from the old pyramid, the teams in the old Division One, were swayed by TV money and the Premier League was born. Born of the desire for teams to make more money. Sound familiar?

The key difference with the Premier League was that it didn’t stand alone and crucially was still a meritocracy. The league was launched with the Football Association’s blessing. Crucially, teams could still join the Prem through the promotion/relegation model. All-in-all, the Premier League was just a fancy rebranding of Division One, fuelled by TV money. 

Is the ESL a bad idea? Not if you’re an owner looking for more income, especially when not all of the teams are guaranteed regular European football in the current setup. It’s not like this is a new idea too, the idea of replacing the current Champions & Europa Leagues gets floated every few years. Let’s face it, change is needed too. If there’s a positive to be taken from this, it’s that some teams stood up to UEFA and demanded change. They didn’t exactly go about it in the best way however, and that stealth approach backfired spectacularly. 

The argument for change is two-fold, firstly is fixture congestion. Not a season goes by when managers and coaches aren’t complaining about their teams being tired, having to play extra games compare to their opposition. This isn’t just about continental football, domestic cups add to this too. The other, less often discussed factor is environmental. Is it really responsible to fly a team across Europe to play one game, then fly them right back? Usually on chartered aircraft? Not exactly green. There are alternatives, a bubble tournament or two would dramatically reduce the travel miles these teams are racking up. 

What really triggered fans was the idea of a closed league. It flies in the face of everything the domestic leagues across Europe stand for. Of course you can argue that the leagues aren’t perfect, the buying of teams and injections of ridiculous amounts of money have created an effective have/have not boundary, but at least teams can reach that fabled upper echelon of the most-watched sports league in the world on merit. The idea of a salary cap was rejected by the players as it restricted their ability to earn, but this would make a huge difference and should be revisited.

The Champions League, for all its flaws does generate moments of magic when a ‘smaller’ team sneaks in and makes a good cup run. There’s a magic that comes with that, not often, but occasionally. Closed leagues don’t have that, cos the teams play each other too often. The last time we had something close in the NHL was when the new boys Vegas exceeded all expectations by not just making the playoffs but then making a decent run of it. 

Is the idea of relegation really that bad as Brodie makes out above? No. I say this as a fan of a team that’s been relegated from the Premier League twice, sure it isn’t nice, but relegated teams get a healthy parachute payment to support the top tier wages they’ve been paying their stars while getting a great opportunity to shed the dead wood from the roster. Players don’t take pay cuts. Many teams bounce back while others have fallen into oblivion. For me though as a fan, I enjoyed watching Newcastle play in the Championship, not having to play the same opposition they’ve been playing for 20 years, going to different grounds watching other teams play (usually at cheaper prices) broadens the mind of the football fan. 

Better to have failed in one league then embrace a new challenge, than grind out mid-table mediocrity season after season. Can this model be embraced in the NHL? It should, but it won’t be. There’s no parity in the NHL, there’s the illusion of it thanks to the salary cap and draft system, but it isn’t really there. The good teams that usually win stuff, usually win stuff. The bad teams get rewarded with Draft picks to be traded and squandered. There are teams in the NHL that don’t deserve to be there, but are entitled to be there because… I don’t know. Yeah it would be a massive shock if the Red Wings or Sabres were to be relegated, but it would be deserved. When they get promoted back up it would be because they earned it, not because they passed the hat around until there was enough cash to buy their way in. 

I’m ragging on the NHL because I love hockey, I just can’t stand the league for this and many, many other reasons. You can apply this rant to any league that operates the same structure.

Each system has its flaws, the EPL and UEFA can’t get its act together around financial fair play, meaning that higher spending teams usually have more success. The NHL, has a mostly good product but is so wrapped up and insular that it’s become stale. It needs the injection of new teams to liven things up but also the fear that there are consequences to being garbage. When something goes wrong, it’s the same merry-go-round of GMs and head coaches that somehow keep managing to fail upwards. Aside from the AHL, there’s no real talent pool. The AHL doesn’t really feel like a proper league either, more a holding pen for players waiting to be called up. A league pyramid can exist in hockey, Sweden do it, and the playoffs (at both ends of the league) are a lot of fun to watch. There is no second or third tier of hockey in North America because there’s no real interest in developing the sport. 

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