Hockey on the Brain: Why North American Leagues Lockout (because they can)

A slight departure this week.

Normally at this time of the year there would be a hum of sports stories flying in the media. At this point the sports sections of the major Toronto papers could effectively be renamed the Leafs section. Alas no. For the fourth time in 20 years the biggest game in town has been shut down by the owners. In that time, the NHL has lost more games to work stoppages than all the other major sports leagues combined, it is also the only league to completely wipe out a season.

Why is my soccer blog venturing outside the realm of footie? I think there is a connection between how the leagues structures of North American sport operate and the work stoppages. Going back to the beginning way back to about a century ago, two continents decided on very different structures of  league ownership. In England (and similarly in much of the rest of Europe), the power of the overarching league control was given to the national federation, the FA. Owners got a seat at the table, but if there was a better team around they could lose out on their spot. While the FA wasn’t exactly a part of the government, it wasn’t a part of the owner’s little racket either. Perhaps it was a cultural trust for authority derived from the state?

North America turned instead to the power of the corporation. In cash we trust. Owners also formed leagues, but to protect their interest, they each got a seat at the board with the governor and decided that it was to work as a secret club, you needed to pass the test of having enough money for a team and then you could receive your membership for life. North American leagues work effectively as cartels; Major League Baseball was actually exempted from US anti-trust legislation. It puts far more power in the hands of the owners than a similar European league.

Now I’m not blind to some of the obvious differences in the geography of the two places. North American cities were separated by vast distances that made the organization of leagues slightly more difficult than say England. Europe was divided politically so that each country insisted on its own league. But I think it was the power of business in the US during the end of the 19th century that settled things for how sport was to be organized here.

The effect has been that NA leagues have stressed inter-city rivalries (Boston vs NY, Toronto vs Montreal) while England makes almost a bigger deal with its intra-city derbies (Liverpool vs Everton, Sunderland vs. Newcastle). It has also calcified the NA leagues and given owners some rather unique powers: Drafts – being able to designate the team rights to certain players and removing the player’s freedom of labour; Territoriality – how is it that Phoenix can still have a team when its pretty clear from demand in Toronto that a new team here would sell out in a second?; no fear of relegation – as much as I like having TFC in MLS, if they played as bad as they do in Europe they’d be in the 6th tier of soccer already and deserve it; and most importantly, lockouts – can you imagine the owners of any soccer league trying to pull this on their own league, fans and players?

No. It wouldn’t happen, short player strikes have happened before; leagues have threatened to hold off without TV rights settled, but the moment the doors close the vultures of every other league in the world will swoop down and destroy the pool of talent those teams possess. For most NA leagues there are few other options. NFL Europe: not really, baseball in Japan: maybe, other basketball leagues: not much of a comparison (but getting better), KHL or Swedish Elite League: maybe to kill time. Given that sort of power and few options for players is it any wonder why there are so many lockouts in NA sport? Owners here have the players over a barrel.

Yes I feel sorry for the millionaires over the billionaires, not by much, but seriously, how have MLSE ever helped the sports fans of Toronto?

How Soccer Explains Canada

I’m currently living in what is becoming known as the city where sports go to die. Toronto has some of the least successful franchises in North America. Leafs: no playoffs since 2004, Raptors: no playoffs since 2008, Blue Jays: no playoffs since 1993, Argos: only 2 times since 2008, and then Toronto FC: never, not once, never.

This is a little painful for me. I want to cheer for TFC, I have cheered for TFC. I can’t cheer for any other sports team in this city because I grew up elsewhere in Canada, where we’re all taught to hate Toronto teams on principle. But TFC is an exception to that rule because I moved to Toronto before they were founded, so I was never trained to cheer against them. Unfortunately, they are losing me fast. Partly because of how bad they are, but also due to the arrival of another Canadian Major League Soccer (MLS) team I have been trained to cheer for: the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Soccer has a fragile hold on the country at most times, we are a nation of hockey fans. But the future of Canadian soccer is clearly headed to the West Coast. My prediction is that Vancouver will win the MLS Cup before Toronto, if Toronto ever manages to (which doesn’t seem likely at this rate). I base this on a number of factors that will tilt the balance of soccer inevitably in Vancouver’s favour. For this discussion I’m going to cut Montreal right out because while they are clearly better than Toronto for now, that isn’t saying much, don’t worry Montreal Impact you’ll get your turn.

The first factor I’ll look at is history. The Vancouver Whitecaps are not as new as one would think. They are in their current incarnation a second year MLS team, but the history and following of the Whitecaps goes back to the ’70s in the old NASL. There they were a successful team and even beyond the collapse of NASL they continued playing in whatever top flight league they could enter. This team may just be sprouting in MLS, but it has very deep local roots – something that the 6 year old TFC team cannot claim, yet. Sure there are the immigrant communities that follow soccer out here, but many of them are still attached to the old country teams, not a new team in a new land.

Another factor working for Vancouver is the importance of soccer in the local sporting system. Vancouver barely gets snow worth mentioning, and much of Southwest BC plays soccer through the winter. That is not possible in snowbound Toronto. Here, soccer is the sport that parents fill the empty spots in the hockey calendar with; in Vancouver, the soccer players may take the summer off to play baseball, but soccer dominates. It is a the key sport in a rapidly growing region of Canada. Due to the territoriality of MLS, this makes the Whitecaps Academy a much stronger contender than TFC Academy over the long run.

They win on fan support, future prospects and now the final factor: ability to sign players. Toronto is a fair city, and I’d say a fair bit better than many American cities, but its competing against Vancouver to sign talent. Following the transfers and signings in MLS this season shows a trend, and it isn’t a good one for Toronto. Vancouver is able to attract global players in a way that Toronto is not. Yes, Toronto has Frings (but how much longer can that last), and Koevermans, but who did we get mid season? Eric Hassli, a Vancouver surplus (apologies to Hassli, I actually really like his play and wish that he had some help out here but we truly are hopeless). Vancouver managed to keep drawing in and signing players and efficiently use their Designated Player spots.

Perhaps this points to another Vancouver advantage: passion to win. Toronto is now so accustomed to losing, we’re thrilled with mediocrity. I don’t think minority owner and NBA all-star Steve Nash is ever going to walk into a Whitecaps meeting and say, “Congratulations on making our business targets for the year. Too bad we didn’t make the playoffs.” Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment has so alienated many of the sports locals here that we’re now convinced that it is just bottom line that matters. Yet we stupidly fill the seats anyway.

I think we’re dreaming for the Seattle Sounders option of voting on the GM’s job. In the meantime, Vancouver can dream of that MLS Cup. It certainly looks a lot closer from out there.