First, let me not mince words. I believe the way player agent Darren Ferris handled the Mitch Marner vs. Toronto Maple Leafs negotiations was less than admirable. Still, I’m certain that he believes he “won the day” for his client.
And, perhaps that’s even worse. He got Marner the money, but he could have gotten Marner so much more.
Had Ferris engaged these negotiations with a bit more wisdom, he could have delivered the money plus he could have cemented Marner as a fixture in the history and legacy of the Maple Leafs franchise as one of the most team-oriented, organizationally supportive players the team ever had.
Marner might have become the Golden Boy; now he’s so much less. And, although I believe he will be able to rehabilitate his reputation with the fans by his solid play and a stretch of considerate behavior, a smarter negotiation strategy might have avoided that need altogether. A wiser strategy would have actually furthered the team’s culture, enhanced its leadership, and better ensured its success.
These Salary Negotiations Changed Marner’s Image
Last season most Maple Leafs fans believed Marner was both the team’s on-ice leader and also the team’s heart and soul. The fans simply adored this young, skilled, good-looking, hometown boy who had taken the city by storm and was the team’s leading scorer two seasons in a row. He became the kind of player a franchise should be built around.
I was among those who believed Marner was the real deal, both as a player and as a team leader. I believed he was as important to the Maple Leafs as Sidney Crosby was to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Don’t get me wrong, I still feel he’s a great player, but I’m no longer sure about his leadership ability on this team – at least in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, from the fans’ comments that I’ve read, sadly I think they agree with my assessment.
This summer things changed. As a result of the way the negotiations were handled, the adoration the fans held for Marner eroded. He, through the actions of his agent Ferris, seemed all too willing to hold the team hostage, posturing and threatening (or at least huffing and puffing, because no one really believed Marner would actually travel to Switzerland and play there for a season) to increase his cash flow.
True, no one on Marner’s team actually specifically said that was his plan, but no one on his team lost sleep because anxious fans began to believe it was possible. That’s called puffery. And, in marketing, puffery (making big claims that fail to deliver) is illegal and advertisers could face legal issues. At the least, puffery damages a brand’s reputation. And, make no mistake; Marner was treated like Ferris’ “brand.”
Ferris’ Strategy Manipulated Maple Leafs Fans
From all we could see as fans, and granted much was hidden from the public, Ferris’ strategy was first to belittle organizational choices and second to publicly call into question the Maple Leafs’ desire to have his client as part of its roster. Specifically, when Auston Matthews re-signed during the 2018-19 season, the first words from the Ferris camp was that Dubas had “low-balled” his client.
Then, as the negotiations proceeded, Ferris postured Dubas’ unwillingness to sign Marner for the same money as Matthews as proof that the team simply didn’t value Marner. Ferris also toyed with a Maple Leafs fanbase that had not seen a Stanley Cup-winning team for more than half a century and who, as a group, desperately wanted Marner to remain with the team. Every Maple Leafs fan everywhere knew the team was much better with him than without him.
Ferris used Maple Leafs fans during the negotiations. When he wasn’t posturing and threating, he would simply plant a seed and allow the fans’ anxieties to grow that seed into public pressure against Dubas and the team.
The Switzerland gambit, for example, was leaked simply to rile up fans. Granted, there was no specific, stated threat Marner would move and play out the season in Europe. But, you had to know that strategy would enflame panic.
It’s like that children’s game, where you sit in a circle and someone whispers a statement in one person’s ear, which is whispered in the next person’s ear, then on and on – until the person in the last seat reveals what he or she hears. Often the message is distorted in huge ways. This time, Ferris was hoping for just that distortion. Half-truths or no truths; it didn’t matter.
All was fair in business because it was “only” a negotiating tactic to organize an already anxious Maple Leafs fanbase into public pressure against the Maple Leafs organization. Why? Because restricted free agent Marner needed a richer contract.
After the Ice Melted
After Marner actually signed, Ferris then played the part of a clever businessman and did the radio talk-show circuit. Although Ferris wouldn’t comment on the fate of other restricted free agents, he also said he didn’t think the current NHL salary cap system worked. He believed teams were handcuffed and that they “have to be able to secure their star players and keep them long term.”
In other words, here’s what Ferris admitted. First, in his negotiations, it was tough for the Maple Leafs because the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) system was loaded against the team. Second, as his player’s agent, he did his “job” by taking advantage of the organization because he had the upper hand.
Third, in summary, Ferris admitted that the system knocked the team down and, while it was down, he kicked them. If you read what he said carefully, he admitted he knew what the “right” thing to do was for NHL teams; however, he was willing to work against “the right thing to do” because it meant more money for his client. The irony is that Marner’s lucrative contract depends upon Maple Leafs’ team success.
I’m sure that Dubas is a better man than I, but if I were him, I would smile on the outside, but I wouldn’t forget. Call it karma.
How Might It Have Been Done Better?
Ferris helped Marner get his money, and the contract was lucrative. But there was a chance for so much more.
Ferris had a golden opportunity to implant his client into Maple Leafs lore forever if he had been a bit less concerned with the immediate money on the contract and a bit smarter about the possibilities that existed for Marner’s best interests. I believe there was a chance for something really special, and that was totally lost.
Here’s what I would have done were I Ferris.
Right up front, with my client’s permission and knowledge, I would have said publically what he admitted after the negotiations had been completed.
Point one: the current free-agent system is stacked against the team as they try to negotiate with restricted free agents (RFAs).
Point two: Mitch Marner had always dreamed about being a Maple Leafs player and would never wish to leave the team.
Point three: Because Marner’s team valued the Maple Leafs and wanted to move the team forward towards Stanley Cup playoff success, they were creating a partnership between player and team that would work together to build a win-win situation for the team, player, and fans.
Then, I would have created a media event early in the summer that demonstrated this public partnership between Marner, Ferris, and Dubas (representing the Maple Leafs organization). There I would have explicitly announced that Marner had signed a long-term, “team-friendly” contract (something around $8.5 million per season for eight seasons).
The Impact of that Strategy
Had a strategy such as this been engaged, it would have made Marner an immediate hero in his home city. Who knows, there might have been a parade. Marner would have easily recouped any money he “lost” by not seeking to match Matthews’ contract in endorsements.
Second, I believe the Maple Leafs should have immediately named Marner as the captain of the team. And, given the reinsertion by Babcock of Marner into the captaincy conversation, I believe that announcement would have excited the fans. Marner would have become to the Maple Leafs what Sidney Crosby is to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Where We Sit Right Now
Sadly, I believe Marner and Ferris soiled their own beds by engaging a strategy of pitting themselves against the Maple Leafs organization and, by proxy, the team’s fans. That said, I remain convinced that Marner will find redemption over time.
However, should Marner’s season, for any reason, repeat the season William Nylander had when he returned from geographical distance last season, things might not go well for Marner’s own return from his psychological distance (his self-created estrangement from the team for the sake of money) this offseason.
If Marner proves his skill and team leadership over this season, Maple Leafs fans will forgive him sooner rather than later. However, it should have never come to that. Ferris missed an opportunity to immediately enshrine Marner into the team’s Legends Row by stressing his generosity and team-centered spirit – including all the money that went with it.
However, his money-first strategy backfired because it focused on greed and self-interest. Ferris could have acted in ways that really took care of both his client’s and his client’s team’s interests: he did not.
Marner might have been a hero and a wealthy one at that. Right now, he’s exceedingly wealthy but not quite so heroic.
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