Lost amid the hubbub of hacked posts by “random useless bloggers,” acrimonious casino negotiations with the city, and the ongoing and totally unnecessary row over Alfredsson’s departure is the fact that ten years ago Saturday, Eugene Melnyk took over the Ottawa Senators.
It’s just as well that what might have been an occasion for celebration was quietly observed by a few and ignored by most. In the last decade, Melnyk has managed to significantly damage his standing among some hockey fans–or, at the very least, to damage his public image. In his frequent radio and newspaper interviews, he’s prone to utter one after another sensationalist quote, often contradicting himself in a way that seems totally disconnected from how the world sees him and his small market franchise. The interviews are mostly harmless–even entertaining. But if the first nine years of the Melnyk regime were marked by his gradual descent from saviour billionaire to buffoonish personality, then the last year has marked a further fall towards the caricature of a comic book villain, more in line with a Daryl Katz or Jeremy Jacobs.
It’s not just that he’s taken his penchant for bullish overstatement from the realm of sports talk to city council, where he’s thrown his weight around in an attempt to slide the council’s deliberations in his favor. It’s that he, like so many NHL owners, is more than happy to play with the heartstrings of hockey fans to get what he wants. In that he’s not at all unique; he’s not even as bad as some. I’m accustomed to his annual interviews about the possibilities of relocation without strong fan support, conveniently on the eve of season ticket sales. I’m left to conclude that what Ottawa has in Eugene Melnyk is the sort of ego required to amass a $1.5 billion pharmaceutical fortune in the first place.
Melnyk is just another obscenely rich person among many. Give me that kind of money and then tell me I can’t get my way, and I’ll probably seem a bit tone deaf too. But what we’ve observed over these months may be symptomatic of the NHL’s tendency to rely on these billionaire saviours in the first place–these men riding high on whatever entrepreneurial success they may currently be experiencing–over much safer options.
For every Ed Snider and Mike Illitch, there’s a “Boots” Del Biaggio, or Oren Koules and Len Barrie. For every stable fortune, there’s a fortune balancing precariously on a bubble. And so goes the future of each franchise–all of their eggs in one basket, praying the real estate market doesn’t collapse, or the tech surge fade. In some cases, this arrangement ensures years of futility and wasted potential, such as with the Islanders, who are one of the league’s most storied franchises and whose fate is tied perpetually to owner Charles Wang like a drowning man to an anchor.
Perhaps it’s naive of me to suggest, but should the NHL not be doing more to matchmake between diverse groups of investors, those who might not be able to afford a franchise on their own, but who might band together to cover or refinance the weaker links in their network in the event of failure?
I’ve written pretty extensively about how inaccurate I feel the reports are of hockey’s supposed inviability as a product. To reiterate: I think operational “losses” should be thought of as operational costs in light of the underlying value of the investment going up; I think there are multiple, non-hockey related revenues that are only possible because of team ownership, and that these revenues can go unreported; and I think cash flow problems are unrelated to Ottawa as a market so much as liquidity problems in the economy as a whole and Melnyk’s finances in particular. But because we rely on men with big personalities and complex financial problems and aspirations, fans are left to wait for the problems of individuals to be resolved rather than the responsible machinations of investment networks with plenty of checks and balances. It’s no wonder we have so many lockouts.
(And here’s a sobering thought: if the life of the Canadian Tire Center is 30 years, and we’re at about 20, that means opening up negotiations with the city on a new arena in the next few years.)
After all this, I’m left to think about what 10 years of Eugene Melnyk means for Ottawa Senators fans. When he bought the team (and the arena, for a paltry $120 million. The franchise is now worth closer to $300 million), he was effectively saving it from bankruptcy. In a city that has (repeatedly) lost its CFL franchise due to shady ownership, Melnyk signified a new era of credibility. Here was a self-made man ready and willing to buy into our little market, not because franchise ownership was something that self-important billionaires did, but because he believed it was a solid investment. Melnyk has invested in the city of Ottawa, both through charitable deeds and his efforts to rally the charity of others.
At least…that was the image. Ten years later, with all of those deeds thrown back in the city’s face as an increasingly desperate-seeming Melnyk pushes for concessions from city hall, I’m not so sure that narrative is believable anymore. And the next 10 years, if they too belong to Melnyk, could be a lot less rosy than the first.
How can Melnyk fix his image with the public? Staying out of the media would be a good start. He might harbor ridiculous beliefs, like the Senators being the second largest employer in Ottawa, and he’s more than welcome to those beliefs so long as he keeps them to himself. Secondly, Melnyk can embark on a transparent, open dialogue with both city hall and the constituents it represents, rather than throwing barbs around in the papers about the city seeming like a third world country. Thirdly, if he just can’t resist answering Don Brennan and Bruce Garrioch’s emails, he can at least be honest about the money–are we only spending about $50 million on player salaries because that’s the smart thing to do, or because times are tight? Why is the Senators’ debt ratio one of the highest in the league?
Finally: when in doubt, be gracious. Nobody ever faults a person for being polite and professional, even when they’re hiding something. When Alfie leaves town, take out a full-page ad in the Citizen thanking him and every time somebody asks about the circumstances of his departure, simply wish him luck. When someone wants to talk finances, thank the fans for making all of this possible. Maybe don’t hack people’s blogs, if that’s a thing you’re considering doing.
More and more, the sports franchise is becoming a public institution. Quite literally so, now that new arenas are being built with public money. And if that’s the case, it means winning the hearts and minds of us little people, us “random useless bloggers” who also happen to give free publicity and pour thousands of words out about the team we love. Melnyk needs to scrub up, pay a PR person, and win back some of the good faith he started out with ten years ago.
(Watch a video of Melnyk’s first presser as Sens owner here.)