Sometimes the truth slips out and it is very difficult for sports fans and sportswriters to accept the real thoughts of sports executives. Edmonton Oilers President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe blurted out an inconvenient truth about sports last Monday after the franchise fired the team's General Manager Steve Tambellini because the hockey club had not been making progress in building a winning team.
Lowe just stated what sports teams really think of their "fans" and his thoughts caused a panic among devotees.
“We have two types of fans: we have paying customers and we have people that watch the game that we still care about,” said Lowe. “But certainly the people that go to the games and support we spend a lot of time talking to them, delivering our message.”
There was the usually sportswriters and jock sniffers claptrap which centered around Lowe answering a question about replacing Tambellini with people who have been around Edmonton before (Craig MacTavish taking Tambellini's job and Scott Howson who failed in Columbus as the Blue Jackets general manager would be MacTavish's assistant) that Lowe had an awkward moment. He really didn't mean what he said.
Lowe meant what he said and even the apology that Lowe was forced to give to sportswriters and fans isn't going to change the fact that Lowe spurted out an uncomfortable truth that fans should know.
As much as sportswriters glamorize "the fans" and as much as American radio stations with all sports formats "salute" the fans with call letters like WFAN, KFAN, KFNS, or in Canada, SN590, the Fan, or ESPN playing to the "fan", fans don't count.
Sports organizations ranging from Major League Baseball to College football want customers.
About a decade ago, one owner told me this in a rare moment of sports truth. "Nothing comes from the fan," the owner said. "Support comes from customers. Big difference. Fans scream on talk radio. Customers bring their kids, their families, their wives, their dates, their companies, their business partners. They have lives and don't talk to the radio talk show hosts."
The Edmonton Oilers franchise has had a difficult time as of late with statements from team officials. The problem seems to be simple. The owner, Darryl Katz, and his lieutenants John Karvellas and Lowe have been too candid in their comments about fans. Katz wants a new arena for his hockey team and has been unable to secure all of the necessary public funding to build a state-of-the-art arena that would come complete with very expensive luxury boxes and club seating and restaurants.
Last fall, in an effort to turn the heat up on dragging politicians who failed to jump and supply Katz with hundreds of millions of dollars to build an arena, Katz showed up in Seattle where there is a plan to build a new venue. Katz was looking for leverage and to light a fire under the politicians’ derrieres. Instead he ran into a local media that was hurt by Katz's lack of loyalty to the Oilers "fans" and local sportswriters.
Katz tried to mollify the sportswriters’ community in Edmonton along with people he still considers important despite their daily diminishing importance--local newspaper owners---and took out a full page ad in local Edmonton newspapers to apologize to the injured parties (the fans and sportswriters).
“I took for granted your support and your love for the Oilers,” said Katz or someone closely connected to the owner in the ad. “That was wrong, and I apologize.”
The arena talks turned sour by December and Katz appeared to be ready to be open to certain changes in the parameters of the rink agreement. Karvellas, who is Katz’s arena point man, was asked if the concessions were an apology to fans and the Edmonton elected officials. That prompted Karvellas to say.
“That’s not an inappropriate characterization.”
Katz and the city worked out a deal whereby Edmonton taxpayers would pick up most of the estimated $600 million (Canadian) costs for the building's construction and Katz would get the lion's share of the revenues from all events in the building. Katz would be responsible for the building's day-to-day upkeep. Katz's rationale for getting is pretty simple. Edmonton is a very small market with limited corporate resources (in comparison to New York, Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Jose among others) and he needs every last looney to keep Edmonton not only competitive in the NHL but to maintain the franchise in the city.
The arena talks have stalled out because the Alberta provincial government refuses to fill in an estimated $100 million shortfall in the funding. Edmonton doesn't have the extra money and Katz won't put it up.
Leagues put pressure on communities to cough up money to get an owner exactly what he wants. If the local officials don't jump when they are told to jump, there is the threat of moving to another community that will gladly pay the money to satisfy an owner. Katz apparently is not using the “Seattle is getting a new arena card” at the moment.
There are plenty of cities that still want to be in the extortion game.
Markham, Ontario doesn't even want to tell local citizens about that city's plan to build an arena. Quebec City is going ahead with an arena. There is Seattle as well. That is just in the National Hockey League. Seattle is also involved in a tug of war in what city is more deserving of a National Basketball Association franchise, the incumbent Sacramento or Seattle which lost an NBA team in 2008 because the local government did not knuckle under to NBA Commissioner David Stern's demands for a new arena. Come to think of it, Sacramento hasn't knuckled under to Stern either but that's not for the lack of trying as Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (a former NBA player) is trying to literarily move heaven and earth to satisfy Stern and get Sacramento a new building.
There is a long list of fans’ hearts broken by ruthless owners with perhaps the Cleveland Browns fans claim of being the most injured. Browns owner and poor businessman Art Modell left Cleveland and the Browns franchise ticket list of more than 75,000 fans and took a sweetheart deal in Baltimore in 1995. Cleveland didn't build Modell a stadium after taking care of Major League Baseball’s Jacobs’ family Indians franchise and the Gund family’s Cavaliers National Basketball Association franchise building those franchises new taxpayers supported venues. Modell felt hurt and looked elsewhere and found a great offer in Maryland.
Owners demand total fan loyalty, fans give teams unconditional love even if they get mad because a team doesn't win too many games. Fans love their teams; the problem is owners don't love fans. The owners love sweetheart venue deals that give them in the United States up to 92 percent of arena/stadium revenues for all events. The owners love large cable TV deals and the owners most of all love corporate customers who have the means and the want to spend their money inside of an arena.
Lowe spoke the truth. Then had to apologize for saying out loud what owners and team executives talk about in quiet rooms.
Evan Weiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . His e-book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com and his e-books, America's Passion: How a Coal Miner's Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century and Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA are available at www.smashwords.com, iTunes, nook, kobo, Sony reader and Diesel.