You might think a book about the salary cap would as exciting as watching the ice freeze before an outdoor hockey game — and you would be wrong. “Cap in Hand: How Salary Caps are Killing Pro Sports and Why the Free Market Could Save Them” is a new book by Bruce Dowgiggin that expertly explains why salary caps and the promise of parity are killing sports in North America.
Dowbiggin gives the history of professional sports labor law and the conflicts between players and teams, from Babe Ruth’s hold out with the Yankees in 1930, to Eric Lindros’ refusal to play for the Quebec Nordiques in 1991. He gives a blow-by-blow account of the major contracts, lawsuits, lockouts, holdouts, trades and strikes that put each of the four major professional sports leagues and its’ players – for better or for worse – in the position they are in today. Dowbiggin, with the aid of sports labor lawyer Ryan Gautier, give a rundown of how the various laws work in sports, most of the time to stifle players from making as much money as they can.
“Cap in Hand” isn’t just a treatise on sports labor history, nor is it just a rant on how the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL are doing it wrong; though after reading it, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree. The book concludes with how to fix the problems so meticulously explained, mainly using the European soccer model as a basis. Die-hard fans of smaller market teams would have a difficult time with some of the suggestions, which include, among others, relegating losing teams to lower leagues and nixing annual entry drafts – instead of rewarding bottom-feeders with top draft picks.
Excerpt that epitomizes “Cap in Hand”: In locking out their players, owners promised fans reasonable ticket prices, franchise stability and stars staying close to the home they had when they entered the league. It’s been a poor bargain for fans. Look at ticket prices: the best ticket to Super Bowl I was $25; the average ticket to a regular-season NFL game in 2016 was $92.98. Coming out of the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout, the average ticket price was $43.13. By 2016, it was $62.18. Tickets to high-profile events such as a Super Bowl or Game 7 in the NBA or NHL can soar into the tens of thousands (all prices courtesy of statista.com).
Because of this ticket-price escalation and the improvement in broadcast and television quality, many people today experience sports not live but via TV, tablet or phone. Similarly, “free” TV coverage of games has morphed into subscription-based cable networks or league-owned packages of games that run to the hundreds of dollars a year. So while owners have canceled months — sometimes entire seasons — in the quest to defy the market for payrolls, the benefit has not been extended to the fans.
What I like about “Cap in Hand”: Dowbiggin recaps all of the biggest, or otherwise most-notable, contracts in sports history. And while he talks about all four major pro sports leagues pretty equally, his go-to examples a lot of times focus on hockey, which makes this book extra-cool for hockey fans.
What I do not like about “Cap in Hand”: There are no pictures in the book. Photos of the players talked about would have been helpful, as would a few graphs or charts illustrating some of the financial figures explained.
Although his solutions may seem controversial to most North American sports fans, “Cap in Hand” is nonetheless a fascinating read, mainly because of two-thirds of the book spotlight the many-times seedy history of sport labor negotiations, which are necessary to understand both how far pro sports have come and how far they could still go. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.