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December 21, 2014

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Ice Ice Billy

A modest proposal: Have NHL players pay to play

For those with a DVR, basic cable or satellite television and a penchant for Formula One racing, you know of Vitaly Petrov. For those who lack the aforementioned penchant, be clear that Petrov is not the provocation of any Pussy Riot demonstration, at least to my knowledge.

Petrov is a Russian driver in Earth's most glamorous sporting league, Formula One. How glamorous? The inaugural F1 grand prix in Austin this November features a $200 weekend parking pass.

It's that glamorous.

He is considered a "pay driver," which means he essentially pays for the right to place his задница an inch or two above a tarmac that is slipping beneath him at 200 mph.

Like a handful of F1 drivers within the handful of F1 drivers, Petrov brings sponsors to his Caterham F1 Team who, I assume, get a logo on the car, and great seats, freshly sliced strawberries as well as a pâté of some kind at each race.

The NHL locked out its players over the weekend in the latest incarnation of the endless negotiation that is collective bargaining. In an oversimplification, somebody believes they are not getting enough Benjamins relative to the overall business model, and somebody else thinks the first somebody is already getting a fair share.

Let's all imagine, for a moment, that the Colorado River can choose to flow in the opposite direction. Now that we have all seen that the waters can run uphill, we are in a frame of mind that anything is possible. So, let's make the argument that the abolishment of labor disputes over compensation happens when all professional athletes pay to play, Petrov style.

Despite what anyone will tell you, the number one reason any major league superstar athlete makes more money than others is because he causes greater ticket sales, increases television ratings and moves replica jerseys. No one could argue that Jeremy Lin wasn't entitled to a portion of all of that for that whole ten weeks a while back, assuming there is some kind of formula of fairness.

This is popularity, and popularity causes cash flow. Cash flow lets teams buy stuff. Those with the biggest cash flow get more popular players to add to their first popular player and eventually they become the New York Yankees.

Of course, the statistical proof of ability and the prospect of winning are two foundations of this popularity. But, while teams are leasing all of this popularity, they can't guarantee that non-starters won't spend the late innings eating fried chicken and veg'ing out on PlayStation. Nor can a team buy, much less predict, the kind of chemistry that yields winning. More times than not it's like catching lightning in a bottle.

But popularity – and all the reasons for it – is for sale.

The economy of professional sports has shifted. Anthony Davis has trademarked his unibrow because players now have powerful and competent resources to run their brands as effectively as any sports team simply because it's more personal to them. So, why not just let them handle all of it?

While running the independent baseball team Nashua Pride, Pete Rose Jr. called to get a spot on the roster. He said that because "Rose" appeared on the back of his uniform he would be worth more money than I was offering him. I told him he was right, so he should accept an offer that had him get a percentage of every ticket sold that exceeded our average ticket sales. He never called back, probably because he wasn't buying what he was trying to sell me.

Under any system the most popular players will always be the highest paid. And so, in this modest proposal, if the NHL is willing to close up shop and throw the livelihoods of its support staff into the uncertain breeze to change how things are done – and the players union is willing to let that happen – then make it count.

Flip the script so everyone can do better. Give the players the ability to market their popularity to make as much money as they can possibly generate without team salary caps and luxury taxes getting in the way. Have them pitch and secure personal sponsorships from which they take their cut off the top. If a team believes they are a fit then the player can pay the team to play for the best publicity vehicle that they are willing to afford or can turn into more lucrative personal sponsorships later.

Better players may even play for small market teams because they want to pay less to play and keep more money, thereby making the perennial uncompetitive team a contender. This should be a big help to that midfield team that spends $53.5 million in player payroll to get bounced from the first round of the playoffs.

Game ticket prices could plummet – which might help remedy the game's struggle with its own popularity problem in many NHL markets. And more to the point, the woman manning the arena deep fryer could keep earning her modest hourly wage and afford the new school clothes for her third-grader.

Of course, volumes of new rules preventing player consortiums allowing stacked rosters and team price fixing would have to be written, and teams would certainly want to maintain the ability to improve their rosters. But that's the Pandora's Box someone else can address. I, after all, have stuff to do.

So, if Sydney Crosby finds himself looking for something to do next month, he can just bring the Wranglers $100,000 in sponsorships, we'll slap some logos about and stock up on pâté.

Why only $100,000? Because the Alaska Aces will let him play for free.

Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers.

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