What sets Auston Matthews apart from other NHL hockey players is that he’s good – really good. That talent now puts him in a situation where he’s able to pursue flexibility in his contract. And he likely will in his next contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Who really blames him? He’s a world-class talent in the professional sports world. And a very, very few of the very special talents will have it made financially. Expect Matthews to be rewarded handsomely.
Some (most?) Maple Leafs’ fans would wish their favourite players would commit to long-term deals with the team they root for. And, while Matthews might do so, he has shown a willingness to explore different options.
There’s a good chance that he will utilize his next contract to gain maximum flexibility. He wants to win the lottery when the NHL’s salary cap starts to climb.
The NHL Is Not the NBA – Yet
The kind of contract flexibility in the NHL now has started to align with the modern trend seen in other professional sports. Here I’m thinking baseball but especially basketball. In the NBA, players often seek opportunities to change teams for a number of different reasons.
Matthews’ Financial Considerations Should Not Be Minimized
Matthews’ pursuit of financial riches cannot be dismissed. He’s one of the NHL’s best players, and that gives him both the right and the potential to sign a huge contract over a shorter term. If he signs shorter-term deals, he’ll be able to position himself for larger contracts in the near future.
And as I noted, the near future is when the salary cap will begin to climb upward after the pandemic had Pac-Maned its way through the players’ salaries (escrow) and halted their increased earnings. COVID cost everyone.
Professional Sport Is a Battle Between Players and Teams for Finite Funds
Professional sports have always been a battleground when it comes to players and teams negotiating contracts and salaries. The NHL is no exception. Players seek the best deals for their talents; and, conversely, teams strive to build competitive rosters within the constraints of the salary cap.
Ironically, those things DO NOT go hand in hand. The finances are finite (given the hard salary cap). When $2 million more goes to Matthews, it can’t go to bringing in a third-line shutdown center like David Kampf. As a result, when Matthews (or Mitch Marner, or anyone) signs for more, someone else gets shafted. Where will Kampf be next season?
Fans Are Getting Frustrated
That’s the current system; and, to be honest, I have no solid ideas about how I would fix it. As I said, I don’t blame Matthews; and, I don’t blame the Maple Leafs.
Matthews’ choice between his loyalty to the team and his personal wealth has led to an unfortunate situation where fans are left feeling frustrated. At the same time, players are unfairly criticized for maximizing their earnings. While I can’t imagine what the difference between being paid $12 million and being paid $14 million feels like, I don’t blame a youngster for going for $14 million instead of taking $12 million. What agent would tell their client to leave $2 million on the table so his team could bring in a player who could help them win? There is a certain weird irony to that thinking.
The Pursuit of Maximum Earnings
In today’s sports landscape, athletes are pressured to sign the most lucrative contracts they can. This pressure comes from a ton of different places. It includes the desire to create financial security for themselves and their families, the influence of agents and player associations, and players’ constantly evolving market value.
In some ways, it’s also a measure of how good you are as a player. The more you make, the better you are. A contract becomes a measure of self-worth.
The escalating salaries in professional sports, including hockey, are a reflection of these dynamics.
Are Players Mercenaries, Or Is the System Broken?
While some fans see players solely as mercenaries, it’s essential to understand that players are simply playing by the rules and opportunities they are presented and that have become normalized. As in any other profession, players are entitled to pursue the best financial compensation for their skills and contributions. It isn’t fair to fault them for trying to maximize their earnings within the rules established by the league.
The broken system lies in the imbalance between player salaries and the fan experience. While players sign lucrative contracts, fans often bear the brunt of rising ticket prices, expensive merchandise, and all the other costs associated with supporting their favourite teams. The increasing financial burden on fans can make it challenging for anyone – except the very wealthy – to engage with the sport they love up close at the arena where their team can be cheered for live.
The salary cap system also contributes to the disparity between players’ salaries and the fans’ experience. The salary cap was introduced to promote parity and maintain competitive balance among teams. However, it often leads to teams struggling to retain star players.
As a result, a player like Matthews could one day end up in a constant blender of different rosters where he might engage in a sort of drive-by loyalty for his teams. On the other end, fans lose their favourite players, who quickly move from one team to another.
Such a revolving door of players will diminish the emotional connection between fans and their teams. Perhaps fans can be blamed for caring too much; but, fans can also become disconnected and disillusioned.
Fan Expectations About Loyalty
Fans have high expectations for their teams. They hope for loyalty from players. However, it is important to recognize that loyalty is a two-way street. Players owe their loyalty to their teammates, coaches, and organizations, but not necessarily to a specific city or fan base.
Expecting players to prioritize loyalty over their own personal and financial aspirations is unrealistic and ignores the realities of professional sports.
It’s worth noting that some players choose to stay with a single team their entire careers. Such actions embody loyalty. However, these players should be appreciated for their choices rather than using them as a standard that measures how other players live.
The Bottom Line
In the NHL, players are often criticized for seeking maximum earnings and exercising their right to negotiate contracts. It creates a disconnect between the players’ pursuit of wealth and the fans’ ability to engage with the sport fully.
That said, it seems illogical to blame players for taking advantage of the system. They’re simply navigating within the rules and opportunities presented. Instead, it seems important for me to admit the broken system. Only then can we work toward finding ways to strike a better balance between player salaries and their fan’s experience.
Professional hockey is such a great game. But it could be better if it were more aligned with what fans desired. Although I don’t know what it might be, I believe there are ways to create a better experience for everyone who cares.
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