The Feb. 25 National Hockey League trade deadline slides into view just as the National Basketball Association’s version of Trader Vic’s has expired.
The fact that these two arbitrary dates are considered five-star attractions of the regular season tells you a lot about what a grinding bore the regular season has become in pro sports.
The endless parade of ‘must-win,’ ‘key,’ ‘four-point,’ ‘essential’ contests – that are anything but – begins in the fall and staggers along until everyone tries to change their luck in February. It speaks to the paucity of the content of featureless regular-season games.
If panels of fevered media meat puppets talking up the trade mart is worth waiting four months for, what does that say about the dated concept of the 82-game schedule?
But even worse than the trade deadline tracker is what follows: The season of tanking, aka tank-apalooza. Losing for dollars. This is the unseemly spectacle where teams that denuded themselves of useful players at the trade deadline stagger to the end of the campaign.
There, they yearn for a high draft selection in the hope of emulating the success of the Edmonton Oilers. Wait, that might not be a good example. In hopes of emulating the Toronto Maple Leafs or Calgary Flames, adding a Auston Matthews or Johnny Gaudreau.
To do so they play goalies who wear pads on the wrong legs, scorers with a wonky compass and coaches whose temperaments are this side of Beelzebub. As I wrote in 2018 (To the loser go the spoils), the league actually congratulates its worst teams for their skill in sinking to the bottom.
Yes, deputy commissioner Bill Daly was Mr. Congeniality at last year’s draft selection show, praising the halt and lame for managing a shot at No. 1 pick overall. Nice message to fans paying full shot for a ticket.
In the NBA, things have been no better as hapless boobs like the New York Knicks or the Phoenix Suns scuttled any hope of winning to grab the No. 1 pick – likely Duke University’s Zion Williamson.
The faux effort in the NBA became so embarrassing the past few years that the league decided that the three worst teams would all get the same odds at the premium pick. That guarantees that at least three clubs do the fainting goat routine at season’s end.
And that’s why I’ve suggested before that if you’re going to continue rewarding functional idiots for their ineptitude with a draft plum, maybe you should flip the switch. Have the teams eliminated from the playoffs earn the No. 1 pick by winning it.
The argument goes like this: Continue the 82-game schedules. After 72 games, declare the 16 teams that will be in the playoffs. Have them play out the rest of the season to determine the final playoff positions. Proceed with the post-season as usual.
The teams that don’t make the playoffs also play out the remaining 10 games. But instead of starting inferior goalies and putting players on injured reserve to tank the season, turn the equation upside down. Have those teams play the final 10 games to determine the draft order – by winning.
The best team in the final 10 games wins the top draft pick and so on, until the team with the worst record in this 10-game segment gets the 15th draft pick.
Yes, I know. Radical. Make winning more important than losing.
Or else you can take the formula I propose in my book Cap In Hand: How the Salary Cap is Killing Pro Sports and Why the Free Market Could Save Them. This system involves winning, too, so it’ll be poorly received by the tanking masses of the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
What I propose – steel yourself – is a return to the system without salary caps or clawbacks or Larry Bird exemptions. Yes, a free market with relegation and promotion to determine what’s to become of teams that have screwed up their business. It allows for all teams – and maybe more – to persevere in a system where the big dogs get to eat what they kill while smaller markets won’t have to strip-mine the civic government for an ostentatious stadium or arena it can’t afford.
No more Gary Bettman threatening a mayor because he believes a city needs a new arena. No more $300 tickets in a $100 town. No more watching small-market clubs threatened with losing their team.
Say it can’t work?
The Premier League of English soccer has become the richest and most powerful league in the world by doing exactly that.
Worried about the best teams winning too much?
Doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), where Ohio State, the University of Alabama and Duke are always winners. Ratings are great and sponsors can’t get enough of it.
Ten teams eliminated on opening day? Now there’s a concept Bettman can get behind.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.