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Bruce Dowbiggin

So You Say There’s A Chance? Watering Down The Product

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Legendary Boston Bruins coach/ GM Harry Sinden put his finger on the dilemma of NHL competitive balance when we interviewed him for our book Money Players. The problem with teams in the league, said Sinden, Is that there were (then) 20 teams who all think they are going to  win the Stanley Cup and they all going to share it. But only one team is going to win it. The rest are chasing a rainbow.”

And that trenchant observation was before the expansion Vegas Golden Knights won a Cup within five years while the third-year Seattle Kraken made a run in those same 2023 playoffs. There are currently 32 teams in the league, each chasing Sinden’s rainbow of a Stanley Cup. That means 31 cranky fan bases every year. And 31 management teams trying to avoid getting fired.

Maybe we’ve reached peak franchise level? Uh, no. If you believe the innuendo coming from commissioner Gary Bettman there is a steady appetite for getting a piece of the NHL operation. “The best answer I can give you is that we have continuous expressions of interest from places like Houston, Atlanta, Quebec City, Salt Lake City, but expansion isn’t on the agenda.” In the next breath Bettman was predicting that any new teams will cost “A lot, a lot.”

So you say there’s a chance. The mention of twice-failed Atlanta (see; Flames, Thrashers) getting a third try drew guffaws from those who’d seen the failures of the past in Dixie. But deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly says, “I think some of the challenges that we’ve seen in the past in Atlanta can be overcome” Other scoffed at the idea of small-market Quebec City cutting into Montreal’s provincial monopoly.

Daly echoed Bettman’s caution about a sudden expansion but added, ”Having said that, particularly with the success of the Vegas and Seattle expansions, there are more people who want to own professional hockey teams.” Translation: If the NHL can get a billion for a new team, the clock might start ticking sooner. After all, small-market Ottawa just went for $950 M.

Houston is planning a renovation of the Toyota Center in the hopes of adding a second Texas franchise. If anyone can pat a billion it’s America’s energy capital. Why are people ponying up for the NHL and its mediocre media footprint? One very good reason— one for which Bettman fought long and hard— is payroll control. The league’s punitive salary cap forces players to guarantee a profit to owners before they get their full salary. As a result a mega star in the MLB, NBA and NFL can fetch over $40 M a year. In the NHL Connor McDavid tops salaries at just $13.25 M.

It’s not just the expansion-obsessed NHL talking more teams. MLB is looking to add franchises. This even as it decides about moving the neglected Oakland A’s to Las Vegas.  As a result Tom Brady’s recent appearance wearing an Expos jersey—he was drafted by Montreal in 1995 before choosing football— at an MLB store drew cautious interest in Montreal So did his passing comment about perhaps taking an ownership position in any future Montreal franchise.

Now, abandoned Montreal is once more getting palpitations over rumours that the league wants to return to the city that lost its Expos in 2005. Recent reports indicate that while MLB might prefer Salt Lake City and Nashville it also feels it must right the wrong left when the Expos moved to Washington DC 19 years ago.

The city needs a new ballpark to replace disastrous Olympic Stadium. They’ll also need more than Brady to fund the franchise fee and operating costs. And Quebec corporate support— always transitory in the Expos years— will need to be strong. But two more MLB franchises within five years is a lock.

While the NBA is mum on going past 30 teams it has not shut the door on expansion after seeing the NHL cashing in. Neither has the cash-generating monster known as the NFL where teams currently sell for over six billion US. The NFL is eyeing Europe for its next moves.

The question that has to be asked in this reported rush to expand is the one Harry Sinden put to us years ago, WTF, quality of competition? The more teams in a league the lower the chances of even getting to a semifinal series let alone a championship. Fans in cities starved for a championship— the NFL’s Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns are entering their seventh decade without a title or the Toronto Maple Leafs title-less since 1967— know how corrosive it can be.

Getting to 34, 36, maybe 40 teams makes a short-term score for owners but it could leave leagues with an entire strata of loser teams that no one—least of all networks, carriers and advertisters—wants to see. Generations of fans will be like Canuck supporters, going their entire lives without a championship.

In addition, as we’ve argued in our book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports and How The Free Market Can Save Them, watering down the product with a lot of teams no one wants to watch nationally or globally seems counter productive. The move away from quality toward quantity serves only the gambling industry.

But since when has Gary Bettman cared about quality of the product? So long as he gets to say, “We have a trade to announce” at the Draft, he’s a happy guy.

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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

Reverse Discrimination: The Bullying Of Caitlin Clark

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“@TheBabylonBee cheekily sums it up. “Caitlin Clark Canonized As Saint After Performing Miracle Of Making Women’s Basketball Watchable.” 

What a month or so it’s been for basketball star Caitlin Clark as she starts her WNBA career with the Indiana Something or Others. She’s had moments of triumph (30 points in a recent game). And a couple of duds. She’s also been roughed up physically with veteran players flagrantly fouling her, going out of their way to intimidate her physically. Initally, no foul was called on Chennedy Carter.

The League response to all this has been tepid refusal to rein in the veterans. NBA commissioner Adam Silver glibly called it a “welcome to the league” moment. (Clark says no hard feelings.) Most of which has played out in front of sellout crowds in a league that has papered more houses than a dry waller. “Confused WNBA Player Asks What This Huge Crowd Of People Is Doing At Game

And now women’s basketball’s young pole star has been left off the U.S. Olympic basketball team for Paris this July. You’d almost think the stars of the WNBA— a secondary sporting league at best propped up by the NBA— resent her being in their midst. That they fear she’ll break up the cozy LGBTQ/ BLM clubhouse they have going on. But we predicted as much in an April column entitled Now Comes The Complicated Part when her college career ended.

“The most interesting reaction may come from the women already in the WNBA. The intrusion of a white, conservative, straight Catholic woman in their midst won’t sit well in a league where women of that description have been made to feel unwelcome in many dressing rooms. She’ll need a tough hide to survive the resentment of other players who see themselves as the stars and Clark as a product of white privilege.”

That resentment has been naked and ugly from many who see themselves eclipsed by Clark’s obvious drawing power— and by their own inability to break the glass ceiling. “As we have written on multiple occasions, women’s sports has been in search of a marketable messiah to change it  from an ESPN liberal hype to mainstream. For too many in the audience— including women— the image of these sports has become too political. As the gender revolt took hold, fans were turned off by the strident lesbian soccer player Megan Rapinoe and WNBA star Britney Griner who turned every game into a referendum on the latest #BLM talking points. 

“There was a resistance to their defiance and the craven submission of corporate voices infatuated by DEI praise. To some, players on opposing hockey terms marrying each other was jarring. But Clark seems to be breaking the mold. The advertising world will beat a path to her door despite the second consecutive defeat in the Women’s Final. She’ll be honoured with woman athlete of the year and more.”

And, apparently, she’ll be resented for it. Days ago stories claimed that a Clark fan harassed Chicago star Carter and other players when they got off their team bus and outside their hotel. Wonder why? Oh yeah, Carter levelled Clark with the cheap shot.) That stirred the pot until it was revealed that— holy Jussi Smollett— it was all made up. (Must be something about Chicago.)

If you needed more evidence that Clark is living rent-free in the brains of these prima donnas, the rebellion by the veterans of the Olympic basketball team tells you all you need to know. It’s a scene reminiscent of the played-out Rapinoe getting a spot on the U.S. National Women’s team in place of a younger player to placate the team’s “equilibrium”.

WNBA star Cheryl Reeve explained the Clark snub. “I’ve never been in the trenches with her. Not even at a USA Basketball camp. Asking a coach to integrate someone she has no history with, at tournament with highest stakes, is a lot. A lot a lot.” Similar noises came from other resentful players. Which is so much twaddle.

First, Team USA hasn’t lost an Olympic match since 1996. So the twelfth spot is hardly a game changer. Second, you could hire Joyce Behar to coach this team, and they wouldn’t lose. Third, Clark has played on USA FIBA teams winning gold in 2017, 2019, and 2021 with MVP honours . She won Nike Elite national championship during high school. Named Iowa Gatorade player of the year twice. She’s got the resumé.

But she doesn’t tick the right cultural boxes for the WNBA players and their political allies. That’s what happens when players coddled by ESPN and the Title IX zealots call the shots. Noted humanist and hooper Barack Obama made lots of noise about women athletes getting equal pay as their due, but he’s gone mute when black stars acted nasty toward a white athlete.

There’s no question that, having made tin gods of the WNBA players for political purposes, few in authority want to check that privilege. “Women’s basketball decision-makers are not dumb,” writes black journalist Jason Whitlock on X to explain the silence. “They’ve been bullied by the BLM-LGBTQIA+Silent P Alphabet Mafia bigots.” Adds Clay Travis, “Women’s basketball hates its fans and doesn’t want to grow their game. That’s the only conclusion you can draw from their treatment of Clark. She would quadruple their (Olympic) viewership by herself. No brainer.”

To say nothing of the USA jerseys she’d sell. But the political water carriers don’t care. They would return the WNBA to what it’s always been, a subsidized pet project for the progressives in media and government. Perhaps the most on-the-nose indicator about the WNBA’s image is that Toronto is getting a team in the league. It’s a non-binary marriage made in progressive heaven.

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

Ben Johnson: Can You Railroad A Guilty Man?

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The Incredible Life Of Ben Johnson: World’s Fastest Man by Mary Ormsby, Sutherland House, 286 pages

It’s a short list of sports events that Canadians can remember where they were when the story broke. Paul Henderson’s 1972 goal in the USSR Summit Series. The Gretzky Trade. Ben Johnson tests positive after winning the 1988 Olympics 100 metre gold.

It’s long been established that Johnson was guilty on the positive steroid charge. But many questions have lingered for Canadians. Why was Johnson the only one singled out when five other runners in that race have drugging histories? Why did Canadian officials abandon Johnson to his fate in Seoul?

Our friend Mary Ormsby, longtime former reporter at the Toronto Star,  has wondered the same things for years. So when Johnson asked her to cooperate on a book, she decided to conduct a cold-case investigation into a story that has flummoxed Canadians for decades. We spoke about The Incredible Life of Ben Johnson: World’s Fastest Man

Why is Ben Johnson still relevant to Canadians 35 years later:? I think, he still strikes a nerve with the Canadian consciousness. He took everybody on that 100-yard run with him in 1988. And then, of course, this historic, disqualification during the Seoul Olympics for his doping offence. That was seared in the Canadian mindset at the time, and I found over the decades that Canadians have never really forgotten about that moment.

People are still curious about him, and I think over time, people have become very much more aware and educated about the prevalence of doping in sport. We were quite naïve as Canadians, at least back in 1988. And we’ve learned a lot more since including that five of the other guys in that 100 metre final, became linked to doping infractions in some way. So it’s a wiser population that thinks that Ben is interesting, and they want to know what happened to him in the interim.

How did you get Ben to agree to the book: Actually, Ben said, “do you think there’s a book in this?” He’s the one who asked me to write it? And I said no, for a long time. Then I said, well, why not look into it after I left the Toronto Star?

What did you discover: The crux of the book is how is it possible to railroad a guilty man? Was he denied or deprived of due process at his hearing in Seoul? A lot of the people I talked to for the book, they all seem to say that Ben got screwed in Seoul. Meaning he wasn’t the only one using something at the time or of that generation or later. Only he was singled out. Now, that’s not to say, Ben is blameless. We all know he broke a rule, he willingly took steroids and he lied about it. He made it bad for himself. But again, I think people have learned to understand sport in a way that is much more cynical and much more educated, through, all the anti-doping news that continues to this very day almost.

That’s one of the questions I really want to explore in the book. So all this is to say it, it came to be at one point.

Why should people read the book?: The way to engage people was to really focus on what I would call the cold case aspect of the Ben Johnson story. And that is how was he represented at that very critical hearing that Monday night in Seoul when it was all or nothing trying to hold on to his gold medal. As I said, Ben is not blameless. We all know what he did. He lied about it. It took a $4 million inquiry and testimony under oath to get the truth out of him. “Yes, I did know what I was doing and yes, I did take steroids.” Then I try to weave the idea that there is an injustice, surrounding the mystique of Ben Johnson that Canadian officials didn’t go to the wall for him, as they should have. It was pretty much an open-and-shut case very quickly. But following the paper trail, you can see where evidence wasn’t looked at, the Canadian officials didn’t even look at his drug test. They just assumed that everything was correct and all the paperwork was absolutely topnotch. Then the IOC Medical Commission members dropped a second test on him that showed he was a longtime anabolic steroid user.

It was an unofficial test, and also no one took exception to the many conflicts of interest of the IOC doping panel that was actually hearing his appeal. They had many conflicts in my opinion. They developed the testing, they ran the testing, they supervised the testing. They were the prosecutor and the judge and the jury. And they were the ones who could recommend whether he be disqualified or not. So, the trick— and I hope I did it properly— was to get people involved in this idea that there was an injustice that happened. You can support someone’s right to a fair hearing and he was entitled to a fair hearing. That doesn’t mean you support or endorse the behaviour. Those are two separate matters.

How did Canadian officials drop the ball?: Ben made it trickier, because he, said yes, please have IOC VP Richard Pound represent me when that option was presented to him that night. Everybody was in total shock. Richard Pound, he stood to lose something too. He was one of the golden boys of the IOC movement. He was hoping to be in the running for next IOC president. From talking to IOC Medical Commission member Arne Ljundqvist after the fact, the panel weren’t very pleased to see him there running the show when, in their opinion, it should have been Canada’s chef de mission Caroline Anne Letheren. I asked Pound, why did you not look at his drug test? Why, did you not look at the supporting paperwork? And he said, you know, I didn’t want to be someone who got somebody off on a technicality. Perhaps, but if you’re fighting for your life, I would like my representatives to go to the wall for me whenever possible.

How was his late coach Charlie Francis responsible for this?:  He really did influence Ben and convince him— based on Charlie’s own research and knowledge and beliefs— that everybody at the highest level is using performance enhancing drugs. You know, that famous line, you don’t have to use, but you’re always going to be a metre behind. Ben thought about it for a week or two and said, yeah, let’s do it. Charlie was a huge influence on Ben moving forward. So much so that Ben would claim, when he got caught lying, that he lied to protect Charlie Francis. He didn’t want Charlie to be caught up in the big disaster. To this day he, he talks about Charlie with, with great love and affection. So that was a very strong bond. And Charlie Francis did take advantage of that. Ben was the one who was able to help fill Charlie’s ambition as a coach.

Why wasn’t Ben caught when he set the world record at the Rome 1987 World Track & Field Championships?: Amazingly, he said he wasn’t tested in Rome. In fact, he was in the doping control room, and Primo Nebbiolo’s bodyguard went in to get him (Nebbiolo was president of the World Track & Field Federation). He says, “The boss wants to see you at this horse track”. So he spirited Ben out of the doping control room. Ben went in a limousine to this horse-racing track where he met Primo’s friends and horse racing friends and some championship horse, and then he was eventually taken back to Rome to his hotel. Nobody ever bothered him about providing a urine sample after he set the world record. (Nebbiolo later erased Ben’s 1987 world record for embarrassing him with the incident.)

How Is Ben today?: I think Ben has been broken many times in his life about this, and he tried really hard to fight through it. It’s been a lonely fight. At different times, he surrounded himself with people who didn’t always have his best interests at heart (Muammar Ghaddafi) and he retains a bitterness about Seoul and what happened to him and why he was the only one. But there’s also a resilience there that I’m pretty impressed with, because in all that time he’s had to scramble to make a living. He is still hoping with this book and maybe with more time, he will be able to clear his name. He sees that at the end of the day. I don’t know. But what we do see, even just walking down the street in Toronto or down in Jamaica, people will still call out to him. “Hey, world’s fastest man” and give him the thumbs up. You know, what a great guy.

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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