Thursday, July 02, 2009

Times are Tough

tom-hicks-and-george-gillett-460-349991090Reports on the first day of NHL Free Agency were wild across much of the National Hockey League, but in Dallas, where we hear about the tough economic times of Hicks Sports Group, all seemed quiet.

Sure, the Stars were able to keep Jere Lehtinen for what was reported as a home-town discount (1-year, $1.5m), but forgive my cynicism when I point out that in order for there to be a discount, that must mean that someone somewhere else was planning on offering him top dollar. He is 36, and has been broken for the last two seasons. There was not going to be an aggressive bid placed on his services this summer, in my estimation.

Otherwise, the early days of the Joe Nieuwendyk/Marc Crawford regime have been dotted with very little discussions (that have leaked out) about improving this team at all cost, but rather the issue that we hear and read about is mostly about the Stars operating under a very tight (by Dallas Stars' standards) budget.

Say what you want to say about the Dallas Stars owner (I often do), but one thing that cannot be disputed is the fact that for years he has spent with the NHL's richest. Before the cap, and after the cap, he has always spent plenty of money on the Dallas Stars, and even when he has turned extremely "small market" in baseball, he has still made the Brad Richards trade for big dollars and he made the Sean Avery signing for more dollars.

But, now? Now, we are hearing talk about a $45 million internal budget rather than the $56 million dollar cap, there is certainly a feeling that the economic times have put HSG in a spending freeze. And, if you don't believe me, believe the facts that have shown the Texas Rangers, Dallas Stars, and Liverpool FC (trust me) have acquired no talent of any cost in quite some time.

Heck, Liverpool, last winter, with a chance to win the English Premiership for the first time in 19 years actually SOLD depth (Robbie Keane to Tottenham) instead of bought in the final transfer window and Liverpool withered when the injuries hit their front line players in February - something that can be traced back to the purse strings of the owners of the club.

Is it a perfect storm? Probably. When he bought Liverpool, he surely did not see the economic crash of last autumn, but now, the claim that he has been spread too thin with 3 professional sports franchises in a time when owning 1 can grind on a rich man seems rather obvious. Every day there are new developments that show times are tough, and I cannot honestly say they will get better anytime soon.

One other item: In today's Mike Heika story, he writes the following sentence:

"But with the expiration Tuesday of Jim Lites' contract, the marketing group has been dissolved and employees split between the Rangers and the Stars as Hicks continues to seek a buyer for the Rangers and focus on the Stars."

I have no issue with Mike, but I do want to attempt to debate the final phrasing of that. Because if you read that as it is written, it sounds like Hicks is hoping to sell the Rangers so that he can run his preferred hockey team. This has been written several times, and I think people might actually start believing it soon, if I do not cut it off at the pass.

Tom Hicks wants to keep the Rangers. He does NOT want to sell them. But, right now, they are his best chance at turning a profit and getting good value. On the other hand, selling a hockey team right now is next to impossible unless you own one of the great franchises in hockey (Toronto or Montreal). Have you followed the news recently? Did you notice the Montreal Canadians have been sold?Do you know who sold them? George Gillett. Do you know what he co-owns with Tom Hicks? Liverpool. And do you know what is due at the end of the month? More huge dollars on the Liverpool loan of somewhere above $600 million dollars.

So, Gillett and Hicks own Liverpool at just the wrong time, and to pay the banks, one sells his viable hockey team, and the other attempts to sell his viable baseball team. Selling the Dallas Stars is not much of an option as they have basically been on the market for years and have not had a buyer who is looking to get into sun-belt hockey in this post Armageddon NHL (what a shock).

If he had his choice, he sells the hockey team. He can't sell it. The only property of the two with a chance to find investors is a baseball team on the upswing. And there you have the reason why it is happening in the order it is happening - not this premise that Hicks is suddenly more committed to hockey than baseball.

What does all of this mean to us? Well, if you are a Rangers/Stars/Liverpool fan, or heaven forbid, all 3 (Poor me), then you can expect very little along the lines of player movement that requires monetary investment. You can expect small investments such as the pursuit of Jonas Gustavsson which might be very major, but also doesn't cost much.

The bottom line is usually the bottom line. And right now, in the world of Tom Hicks and his sports franchises, "winning at all costs" is dead. "Winning if it doesn't cost much" is alive and well.

In order to not be frustrated, we better understand the realities right now. And here is the scary part - Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban are not immune, either. But, they don't own 3 teams in 3 sports.

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