Allow us to be the first to acknowledge that almost any ownership structure for the Tampa Bay Lightning would be better than the (not so) OK Hockey Group.
But fans of the Lightning might not want to jump out of their seats right away at the prospect of Boston-based gazillionaire Jeffrey Vinik buying their hockey team. Yeah, one guy with lots of money beats two guys with none who spent more time plotting against one another than they did building a hockey team, but if we’re hearing things and reading the tea leaves correctly, there are still all kinds of red flags when it comes to the Lightning.
First of all, by all accounts, Vinik is not a hockey guy. He’s a limited partner in the Boston Red Sox and from what we understand, the Lightning is being presented to him by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as an investment opportunity. Say what you want about former Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, but at least they were passionate about the sport.
Vinik has forged a career as one of America’s most aggressive hedge fund managers. Now, my Grade 11 economics class didn’t teach me much, but from what I can gather, hedge fund managers take large amounts of money from rich people and invest them, often in high-risk, high-reward propositions where they try to perform better than the stock market, then flip the commodity when it reaches maximum value.
So if Vinik is approaching his potential purchase of the Lightning with the same goal in mind, fans in Tampa can expect a largely absentee owner who will get in and try to make a return on his investment before getting out.
In fact, we’re told that’s exactly how the Lightning is being pitched to Vinik. The NHL, which has an enormous interest in getting the Lightning into more stable hands that can access money for little things like, say, payroll, is reportedly telling Vinik the Lightning is an asset whose value will rise with a new television contract and, get this, a new collective bargaining agreement in 2012.
If that’s true, I don’t know about you, but that scares the livin’ bejeepers out of me. That’s because for years prior to the lockout, Bettman told owners and prospective owners to hang in until the next CBA because it would contain cost certainty and make the financial picture rosier for everyone from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Phoenix Coyotes.
And gee, how has that worked out? Well, there is still an enormous divide between the large market and small/non-traditional markets and some aspects of the current CBA are killing the latter.
What’s even more disturbing is Bettman’s assurances of cost certainty were a major factor in the fact there was a lockout the last time around. So what’s he promising owners and prospective owners this time? Abolishing guaranteed contracts? An even bigger piece of the revenue pie? An end to long-term contracts? Because it seems to be those very things that the owners need in the next CBA and those are the kinds of things over which the players will – at least in the short term – be willing to wage a battle.
The last lockout had almost nothing to do with cost certainty or leveling the playing field. It was about enhancing franchise values and it happened, but the earth was scorched for a year and we didn’t see any NHL hockey. If that’s what’s being promised this time around, who knows what the NHL will do to make it happen?
There’s also the matter of the Lightning possibly losing its franchise player. From what we’ve been told, if Vinik gets the team, he’ll want to cut the payroll and the most logical way of doing that would be to trim captain Vincent Lecavalier’s salary. Lecavalier’s cap hit is $7.7 million, but for the rest of this year and for six more years after this season, his actual salary is $10 million in real dollars the Lightning will have to pay out.
So let’s review, shall we? If all of this comes down – and depending on the source it could happen as early as this weekend – you have the possibility of an owner whose sole motivation is to enhance the value of the franchise and then sell it, but not before trading away the face of the organization.
But that’s what happens when you’re desperate to sell.
There are reports the NHL covered the Lightning’s last payroll and was faced with either doing so again or having it covered by former owner, Palace Sports and Entertainment, which would regain control of the team. The finances are a mess and the Lightning is drawing about 10,000 fans a game.
Suddenly, 2004 seems like such a long time ago.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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