NFL No Model For The NHL – Or Anybody Else

This is supposed to be a blog about hockey, but I cannot refrain from commenting on the recent actions of the NHL’s sister professional North American sports league, the NFL which continues to exhibit sheer cold-blooded ruthlessness which ought to make every sports fan around the world – never mind in just North America and never mind if they are hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball or some other sport fans – shiver with horror. Everybody has complaints about NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, real or mythical, but compared to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Bettman, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred have halos over their heads.

In just two years, the NFL has stripped three “traditional” franchises from their cities, not because of poor fan support, not because their playing facility was particularly odious, but because they can get a “better deal” elsewhere. So much for loyal fan support, so much for extensive local media coverage, so much for local corporate support, so much for local taxpayer dollars being used to fund stadium construction; if all that gets in the way, it gets swept aside without a blink of the eye or a stirring of regret. The Los Angeles Rams are at least traditional, but the Los Angeles Chargers and the Las Vegas Raiders? Ugh!

The problem is the sheer mindless, fanatical hold that professional football has on its fans. Since the rise of the NFL in the 1960s when it overtook baseball as America’s number one sport, the NFL can get away with things that the NHL, MLB, and the NBA can only gape at and dream of. Name any other league where the sheer number of franchise shifts for reasons other than poor fan support or an outmoded facility occurs. Cleveland, Baltimore, Houston, now St. Louis (twice), Oakland (twice), and San Diego have been shifted causing immense pain to local fans.

No, I haven’t forgotten or left out Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is a unique case. Los Angeles is the only city to stand up to the NFL and not give in to blackmail about building new stadiums and other perks, etc., and bow down to the league like the others did. In Los Angeles, the movie star, not the sports athlete is king and queen, so when the Rams and Raiders left in the 1990s, Los Angeles merely yawned, put up its feet and was quite content to live without NFL football for 20 years. The NFL never forgot and forgave this humiliation, that its second largest market had shut them out and ignored them.

That makes the shift of the Chargers and the Rams even more disgraceful. Los Angeles certainly was not down on its knees begging for the NFL to come back. But Los Angeles is a much bigger market than “small city” St. Louis and San Diego and the NFL was determined to wipe out the humiliation of not having even one team in its second largest market, so they had to go. Football loving St. Louis and San Diego lost their teams to a city that could not care less. Oakland and St. Louis had traditions of winning the Super Bowl. None of this matters.

Now contrast that with the NHL where Gary Bettman struggles to keep the Arizona Coyotes going, when he opened the door in 2010, for Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford to come back by offering reasonable conditions (no mention of a $500 million expansion fee then), and with the NBA making an unofficial promise to Seattle to bring back the Supersonics if they can solve their arena problem. And MLB has had talks about starting the Expos in Montreal again.

Even more shameful is that none of this had to happen. All the NFL had to do was make a commitment to expanding the league to the next symmetrical number of 40 – divisions with 5 teams in them instead of 4 – and there would be no need to strip any city of its franchise. There are plenty of candidates – there are approximately 60 large metropolitan areas in Canada and the United States so every league is only a fraction of the size it could be. Certainly by inviting back Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, adding Las Vegas, and considering Seattle and several other cities, the NHL showed it is prepared to move past the 32 team barrier and go for 40 teams. In fact, before the Mortgage Meltdown, it seemed inevitable that all four professional sports leagues were heading to 40 at the minimum.

But expansion was never considered as an option by the NFL. Long before the Chargers and Rams were shifted, there were several websites on the Internet listing cities whose teams could be moved to Los Angeles. Certainly Buffalo, Minnesota, Jacksonville as well as the three victims were on the list. That ought to make the fans in those cities feel good about how much the NFL loves them and appreciates their support, and about how precarious their situation really is. If they don’t build new stadiums with other perks when requested… it’s goodbye NFL to some to some other place that will. No other league in North America is so ruthless.

One other consequence of the NFL’s policy of relocation instead of expansion is that there is now a huge backlog of cities who would like to be part of the next 8 expansion teams to 40, and you can bet that many of these cities are ready to capitulate on even the most ridiculously excessive of the NFL’s terms. These cities could have been enjoying NFL football long ago, except for the NFL’s obsession with Los Angeles and its determination not to expand beyond 32 teams. San Antonio, Portland, Toronto, Montreal, Birmingham, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Mexico City and faraway London, now to be joined by Oakland, St. Louis, and San Diego have been mentioned at various times. But the NFL ignored and shut them out. Los Angeles had to be resolved one way or another.

But the NFL’s arrogance does not stop with the shifting of franchises. It was the NFL, specifically the Dallas Cowboys, who started to take the game away from the “common fan” and burden city taxpayers. In 1971, by building Texas Stadium with the new idea of adding “luxury boxes” and other perky seating, the NFL introduced the “European” and “Asian” traditional social structure of “classes” into supposedly “equal” America. From then on new stadiums and arenas had to built with privileged seating in order to meet expenses and increase revenue – usually at taxpayer expense. The cost to build them soared. Also added would be pay tv, higher ticket prices and expensive merchandise that would cost more because it had an NFL sports logo on it. Football and other professional sports have been steadily moving into the exclusive domain of the rich. During the Obama administration, 45 million Americans (and uncounted Canadians) have been unofficially labeled as “poor”. They can never hope to enter the sports palaces that in many cases their tax dollars helped to build.

And I also have to remind my readers of the NFL’s hatred of foreigners, which I have written about in articles on this blog and others. Too many times I have mentioned the excessive price of tickets in Toronto when the Buffalo Bills played some of their games there. The Toronto games never came close to selling out. The gouging of “inferior”, “ignorant” Canadians so “privileged” to watch superior NFL football instead of the inferior CFL kind made even the most fanatical Toronto NFL fan check his wallet.

And the NFL showed “stuffy” Britain that it could be just as snobby as any member of the upper class nobility. For their British games, the NFL usually selects a match between the worst teams in the league that have no chance of selling out and ships the game to football-starved London. Last year the British fans started to notice what was going on and protested against the obvious arrogance. That’s a great way to increase the growth of football around the world. That’s a great way to dispel the image of the “ugly American”.

If Americans could somehow find ways to rid themselves of their football obsession, the NFL would not get away with the arrogant things it does. They would be forced to have to sell their product like everybody else instead of shrugging their shoulders and assuming a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. There’s talk about the CFL moving into these abandoned markets. It’s fanciful but I doubt if the CFL with its own precarious markets wants to make an enemy out of the powerful NFL and its cold-blooded ruthlessness.

At least the NHL, NBA, and MLB have not reached these low depths – yet. The NFL’s arrogance should make every hockey fan around the world shiver and be glad that the NHL still has what little consideration for its fans left. Former Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower used to warn Americans about the danger of the “military-industrial complex” getting out of hand. To which they should add the “sports complex” called the NFL that shows little care for anybody no matter how loyal a fan they may be.