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Bruce Dowbiggin

Referee Complaint Department: You Can’t Say That

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Hear us with Peter Mansbridge on The Bridge at SiriusXM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Here’s the link.

Received a call from my old colleague Peter Mansbridge who has been noticing that refereeing criticism has raised its head as the NHL and NBA seasons come to their conclusions. He’d seen the intemperate rant from Raptor Fred Vanvleet about the swagger of certain referees not adding to the credibility of their work.

“I thought Ben Taylor was f—ing terrible tonight,” he riffed. “I thought that, on most nights, out of the three [officials], there’s one or two that just f— the game up. It’s been like that a couple of games in a row.” Vanvleet admitted he was willing to take the fine that came from ripping NBA refs. Sure enough, the league reciprocated by docking him $30 K for his musings. It was as predictable as it was entertaining.

Peter was wondering if the Raptors star had a legitimate beef with a league that has had gambling scandals with referees (hello Tim Donaghy). He’d also noted, as a season ticket holder in Toronto, that the NHL’s referees sometimes act as if they believe they are the reason the fans tune in. This sentiment gained credibility in 2021 when soon-to-be-former referee Tim Peel was caught on mic saying that, to balance a game, he wanted to give a penalty to Nashville regardless of no infraction.

We were unable to reassure Peter that this tension would resolve, as the influence of legal gambling has put results and the men who call them under ever-greater scrutiny. With the new massive revenues coming from casinos and online gambling advertising the leagues have an added imperative to guarantee the integrity of results by creating a surveillance state on refs and players.

The late pass-interference call against Philadelphia in the Super Bowl that swung tens (maybe) hundreds of millions in bets is indicative of the tightrope they now face. You take house money, you had better keep the house happy. Made worse when these calls are handled by part-time NFL referees or NHL refs who never face the media over their calls.

Lamenting the officials’ work is an age-old issue. In an earlier age, the vagaries were put down to “puck luck” or “bad breaks”. With little recourse, coaches, GMs and players bit a lip and hoped next time they’d be the beneficiaries. The gripes increased as leagues began using referees to create more scoring or prevent injuries, manipulating results. Fans noticed, and did not like it.

In December of 2018 we wrote, “It is a cliché in city planning that, adding roads to prevent congestion, in fact ends up in more cars and more congestion. IDLM was reminded of this seeming contradiction while watching another episode of Law & Order: NFL Crappy Refereeing. In this week’s episode, what was considered pass interference on Thursday is Saturday’s “let ‘em play”… Attempts to clarify what constitutes a catch open new vistas for opaqueness. Not a good look.

The reason for much of this confusion lies with the league’s attempt to prevent injuries by adding a new rules to their rule book. As this (manipulation) has done to city streets, the additional nuance and subtext has only produced greater congestion in games. Endless referee conferences. Players dumbfounded. TV announcers criticizing. 

And still the bodies are broken, the injury lists groan with victims and the fans simmer in disappointment. As they like to say, Epic Fail… The NFL has long been lauded for its ability to gerrymander the rules of its sport to encourage scoring and more dynamic plays. The result, however, is a rule book that more resembles the IRS tax code than any sporting competition. 

“As Al Michaels laments, the flow of games is constantly interrupted by a scrum of referees huddling to divine which of the million NFL bylaws been breached. The (now Vegas) Raiders recently chalked up a record 23 (!) penalties accepted in a single game. As a result, games are unwatchable tedious. 

“On most occasions there is some foul detected. But the proliferation of penalties says that the game might be too difficult to play by the Spanish Inquisition standards of the rule book. Any game that has more than five flags per team is a problem the league needs to address. And don’t get us started about consistency from one officiating crew to the next.”

And that was 2018. Multiply the additional rules and complexities inflicted upon referees by leagues. Add in the visibility created by gamblers parsing every minute trend for an advantage. Increase the number of cameras covering a game by ten. Then season with analytics. It’s a recipe for conspiracy theories.

So, yes, Peter, the issues with refereeing have never been more prominent. But blame the leagues, not their employees, for making them worse.

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Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

The Debt Pipeline: Canada Is Drowning In Debt

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“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”— The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, 1926

For those outside Calgary, the rupture of the major water-carrying pipe is a local annoyance, divorced from their lives. The fact that it now appears it will take 3-5 weeks to restore normal water delivery in the city— original estimates from the mayor said 3-5 days— is tough luck for inhabitants of Canada’s energy city.

Even that estimate is being treated skeptically by a public who were manipulated and abused by the political structure during the recent Covid years. Testing shows that this same pipe— it’s large enough to drive a car through— has five more “hot spots” that could lead to further trouble. In short, repairing and maintaining the infrastructure in Calgary is going to be a huge investment. Married to the city’s debt crisis, a new transit line and the need for other infrastructure projects it’s daunting.

But it’s not a localized problem. Toronto’s new crosstown subway project is years over budget even as the city punts on repairing / replacing its vital Gardiner Expressway. Montreal’s bridges are a construction meltdown. Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax— name the city. They’re all faced with crushing repairs while looking down the barrel of the debt gun.

How bad is the debt bomb? The voice on the other end of the line was grave. This retired financial executive says Canada is effectively bankrupt. He’s seen this coming after his almost 50 years in the Canadian industry. A decade of profligate government spending, Canada’s massive debts and electing activist politicians have brought Canada to a nasty place.

The weak spot in Canada’s wall is government debt, he says, and when the inflection point arrives it will happen in a hurry. As Mike Campbell said in The Sun Also Rises about what brought on his bankruptcy,  “Friends. I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.”

Canada has friends. Allegedly. Successive Liberal governments have allowed “friendly” China to acquire Canadian debt during a period of accelerated buying in the past decade. Meanwhile, China still owes Canada $371 million in loans it incurred decades ago, and it is not expected to repay them in full until 2045.

But recently it’s been revealed that “friendly” China has also been actively interfering in Canada’s elections. It placed spies in Canada’s top-secret biolabs in Winnipeg. It is buying up farmland in PEI and other Canadian provinces.

That has left Canada’s PM, the one who said he admired China’s ability to get things done outside democracy, stammering and obfuscating. He knows that in his current predicament he can’t afford to rile the Chinese, who blithely let Canadians die of Covid-19, a virus they spread to the world.

Already, Canada pays C$46 B a year to service its debt, more than Ottawa expects to spend on childcare benefits ($31.2 billion) and almost as much as the cost of the Canada Health Transfer ($49.4 billion). Hard to believe Canada’s GDP per capita was actually higher than the US. Now, there is a $30.5k USD gap.

Should China decide to push the go button and pull back its bond paper in Canada, the result, says this executive, will be seismic. To rescue a credit-choked economy interest rates could jump back as high as the 18 percent rates of the 1980s. To say nothing of boosting personal tax rates. In case you’re part of the Denial Squad, here’s the take governments exact at the moment. Think they can take more?

NL – 54.8%

NS – 54%

ON – 53.53%

BC – 53.50%

QC – 53.31%

NB – 52.50%

PEI- 51.37%

MB – 50.4%

AB – 48%

YT – 48%

SK – 47.5%

NT – 47.05%

Not good. Canadians who think the warning signs will give them time to adjust are badly mistaken. Paraphrasing the words of Mike Campbell, the long debt descent will happen “suddenly”. Within 48 hours of China (or any other Canadian bondholder) employing the poison pill much of Canadians’ savings will be wiped out. The real estate market— which is the default savings account for millions— will implode.

You won’t hear any this from finance minister Chrystia Freeland who claims her debt-financed spending (based on international comparisons) shows Canada with the lowest level of debt in the G7. But the Fraser Institute points out, “By using net debt as a share of the economy (GDP), Canada ranks 11th lowest of 29 countries and lowest amongst the G7. By using gross debt as a share of the economy, Canada falls to 25th of 29 countries and 4th in the G7”.

If you don’t like statistics you can always just pop down to the grocery store to check out how $4.99 blueberries cost $7.99 now. The debt crisis should lead the newscasts each night. It will when reality strikes suddenly. But for now, Trudeau’s purchased media are more interested in Pierre Poilievre fear stories and TikTok videos of cats.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

How Betting Could Save Over-Expanded Leagues With Competition Problems

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It’s not often that we get new traditions every day in the NHL playoffs. We’re used to octopus on the ice. Plastic rats, too. Ron Maclean using obscure Blue Rodeo lyrics to explain the icing rule. But now there is a new tradition, unlike another.

Bitching about betting ads during the broadcasts of games. Get any group of plus-50s fans together to talk about the playoffs and you’re guaranteed to hear a volley of complaints about the incursion of gambling commercials now peppering the HNIC playlist. Or, for that matter, the TBS hockey playlist in the U.S.

The grievances range from the interference in the play (“I just want to watch a game, not a pitch for the over/ under on Stu Skinner goals-against”) to corruption of youth (“We are teaching a generation of young people that gambling is okay”). Some are annoyed by the presence of Connor McDavid who has morphed from a punchline in Wayne Gretzky’s gambling resumé to a serious dude warning kids about responsible gambling.

The reliance on advertising from casinos and gambling sites is a swift jolt for sports broadcasters who clearly see a golden goose and are not going to let it get away. As we’ve said before, we have yet to have a signature funny commercial for gambling that takes it mainstream. Right now, in Canada particularly, the quality of ads is lame.

But. Let’s discuss the “corrupting youth” argument that seems to be the loudest voice from non-gamblers. As we discussed in the Shohei Ohtani case, gambling— in the form of betting, fantasy sports, office pools, pick-a-square etc.— has been a vast underground source of gambling that the abolitionists ignored for decades. Legalizing it has removed much of this action from the grip of organized crime. As Ohtani’s case showed, the sunlight of public betting allows for (mostly) better monitoring.

As well, the leagues don’t share in the betting revenues, removing any question about the integrity off the outcome. They do promote betting sites and casinos where betting takes place. But the earnings from that belongs to others, not the leagues.

Second, the generations of pecksniffs deploring these ads have watched ads for alcohol on sports broadcasts for decades. In case you’ve been on Mars, alcohol is highly addictive and a drain on society’s healthcare resources. Yet none of them made a puritanical peep about protecting youth from ads for beer that financed HNIC for 50 years. Consistency in this griping would be nice.

Third, there is a fundamental misunderstanding about gambling that most of the opponents miss. Yes, the money is staggering. It has brought to pro sports league revenues so they can pay NFL QBs $50 million a year. With the threat of regional cable broadcasting— and its revenues— collapsing in North America, a new source of profits is imperative.

It also favours the house. Winning 57-58 percent of your bets is considered excellent. But here’s something no one talks about. Recreational gambling is an answer to the problems created by bloated leagues of 30-plus teams. The chances of your favourite team winning the Stanley Cup or Super Bowl have shrunk to microscopic in most cases. As we pointed out in our 2021 book Cap In Hand, the pressure of salary caps has led organizations to adopt either a “we’ll go for it” stance for a “tank for a top pick” approach.

What used to be a healthy middle class in leagues— fifteenth place—is now a ghost town as teams either rise our fall accord to their title hopes. Trading deadlines midway through a season allow teams to dump big contracts or gather depth for a playoff run. By the end of the season the standings are a sandwich with no filling.

So how are broadcasters to maintain interest in lame squads losing at a prodigious rate? What do you say to keep fans coming back even when they know the inevitable result? Enter recreational gambling. The NFL has floated its boat on the power of pools, fantasy and illegal wagering for years. It knows its TV numbers would plummet without people tuning in to see how their fantasy teams, props bets and parlays are doing.

Allegiances to your bets are the coming thing in sports viewership. Not for nothing does ESPN— an NFL, NBA and NHL rights holder— feature a “Bad Beats” section on its sports desk coverage every night. It highlights the outcomes where winning and losing defies imagination. Canadian networks are still treating their betting tips as stand-alone segments, not incorporating a betting win/ loss segment. But with the Blue Jays and Raptors floundering they’ll need alternatives to recognizing the inevitable. Enter betting.

As well, the playoffs—usually a windfall for teams/ leagues—leave considerable inventory unrealized. Quick series make for diminished handles and lost ticket sales. For instance, in this year’s NHL playoffs, the losing team in the 14 series so far has averaged just 1.78 wins per series. The NBA is far worse. Losing teams in this year’s postseason are averaging just 1.2 wins per series.

It’s anticlimactic and predictable and expensive for leagues. So if you’re paying the kind of money the stars now command you have to get the secondary sources of revenue cranked up. That spells betting. Like it or not.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

 

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