January 21, 2020

Money in, loyalty out in pro sports

For better or worse, it is a new world of professional sports, hardly recognizable to fans over 30. In fact, it’s hardly recognizable to fans over 10. A leading player is Major League Baseball/NHL owner Wayne Huizenga.

Huizenga is a modern-day success story. He owns multiple conglomerates in business from trash to used cars to the Florida Marlins and Florida Panthers. He has made and makes big corporate deals and a lot of money.

The breakup of the world champion Marlins is well under way and well known. Huizenga will sell the team to an investment group headed by the Marlins president. The release of high-priced players is necessary to that sale. The new group doesn’t have Huizenga’s vast income network to underwrite last year’s payroll.

A week ago Huizenga fired his NHL Panthers coach, Doug MacLean, as the Cinderella team of two years ago has fallen from grace. Worse yet, the Panthers will move into a new arena next year, and their poor play has reportedly caused a slow sale of season tickets for the new showplace in Fort Lauderdale.

Huizenga is not one to wait to react, he initiates. The Panthers were falling out of public sight. The business needed publicity. A firing would get that. No one, not a player, not a team executive, not a fan blamed MacLean for the Panthers state of affairs. They overachieved under him for three years. They are not a very good team.

General manager Bryan Murray took over the coaching job as well. He blamed the players. Murray said what most fans believe – the players run the show, not the coach. He wants to back up a bit.

“I want players to be responsible for what they do and don’t do,” Murray said. “We’re going to put more pressure on the highly paid players. They are paid to produce.”

Murray intends to publicly speak out when his players don’t produce.

All well and good, but not the issue. The Panthers coaching change was about big business. The players were trying. To a man they said MacLean did his job well. On the ice, it is reality time for Florida.

Except, it came at the worst business time. Luxury suites and season tickets need to be sold now for a new building. Huizenga doesn’t want to spend more money on players now, so he generated fan interest and sought more sales with a coaching move that garnered free publicity. Blaming the players distracts any public discussion of the business matters and might align fans with ownership, not wingers.

This is the new world of big business sports, but hardly that new. Sports owners have forever blamed players for their own ineptness. Owners have forever tried to turn fans against teams that failed. Money was always the issue.

What’s really new is that fans hardly care anymore. What’s really new is the amount of money bandied about. What’s new is that team loyalty by owners, players and fans is becoming obsolete.

What will carry losing teams on until a winning year? Are we now beginning a roller coaster cycle in sports where, like the Marlins, you load up to win, make money in one big year, unload and five or six years later try again?

This appears to be the future which is now in professional sports.

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