First the strong words: Forget the comparisons to Bobby Holik. Scott Gomez is the next Alex Rodriguez, in the eyes of the fans, the league, the press, sports agents and possibly youth hockey players. Tough call? Absolutely, and not one I’ll make in publicly lightly, because as a person I still think Scott Gomez is mostly a good guy. Don’t ever confuse business success with personal and brand integrity. Gomez has assured himself of business success (financially); he’s still got his personal integrity (in terms of being approachable, kid-friendly, and an outstanding spokesman for hockey diversity); but he’s taking a brand hit. That’s the A-rod comparison.
Let’s go down the list one demographic at a time:
Fans. When A-rod signed his quarter-billion dollar contract with the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners fans felt betrayed. It wasn’t the notion of him going to a divisonal rival that raised hackles in the permanently dank Northwest; it was more the sense of him cashing in without any sense of the fan base that had propelled and supported him in the first place. What upsets everyone about Gomez’ meeting across the river is that it’s effectively a big “I don’t care what the fans think” to everyone who is a Devils fan. Could Gomez have gotten a deal that rich from another team? Possibly. Would it have ameliorated Devils fan’s anguish if he had signed for, say, a few million less over half a decade with another team outside of the tri-state area? Absolutely. Many people have said to me “When you only have a few years of playing time, you should sign for as much as you can get.” There’s not a lot of difference between $48M and $52M over that many years if you have a good financial manager and don’t over-spend. Either way, it’s enough to live on in just about any lifestyle after your playing days are over. The question is: what reputation will you live with in the two-thirds of your life that follows your retirement from sports?
League. Let’s be realistic — the league loves the Rangers, Gomez and anything that hints at creative uses of the cap system. $10M for one year is a definite bubble in the capitated spending limits imposed post-lockout, and it will be interesting to see who the Rangers can still afford as September gets closer. The NHL loves the Rangers because they’re in the largest market, and anything that draws attention and fans is good for the league (and hence, good for the cap, and by inference, good for other players too). Gomez is a favorite because he’s out in front of hockey diversity. Does MLB love A-rod? Controversy generates press, press generates ratings, and money generates all of the above. Draw your own conclusions.
Press. I howled quite loudly when reading the Rangers press conference coverage showing both Drury and Gomez with #23 blue sweaters. Drury is the senior guy, and the gentlemanly (and smart) thing to do is say “Hey, if you want #23, it’s yours, I’ll pick number ____ because I’m making a fresh start in a new arena.” But this kidding around — and really weak kidding around — about not honoring the deal because his number is taken is the kind of pedantic, puerile pap peddled by the press (without alliteration). Excuse me while I puke. It’s as pathetic as the flap over Mrs. A-Rod’s tank top.
Sports Agents With his father negotiating, Gomez got $5M for one year from Lou (never mind the cap issues or home town discount in the same year that Elias set a good example). Aren’t fathers supposed to teach us about loyalty and doing the right thing? Put in a “real” agent and that figure doubles with the Rangers, but the Devils fans are livid. Who’s right here? Doesn’t matter. What’s wrong here is that overpaying for free agents upsets the “certainty” that Bettman promised, and for which hockey fans lost an entire season. The only certainty is that beer and ticket prices in the Garden are never going to be cheaper.
Youth Players. One of the kids who played on a team I managed a few years ago loves Scott Gomez. Adores him. The kid identified with Gomez on everything from heritage to solid skating and passing skills. But that was with Gomez as a Devil. Gomez as a Ranger is akin to seeing the first girl you had a crush on going out with the cro-mag guy who used to give you wedgies. It’s a bad definition of “team player” for a group who need solid team player role models.
In the summer of 2007 it’s a parade of free agents who form a veritable Clustrmap of player movement. Continuity in rosters builds a fan base; it helps drive attendance and loyalties in kids who eventually pass those on to their kids. When the players that your kids adore take off, either their loyalties go to an out of market team or their interest in the home team declines. Neither is good for the long-term health of the league. Just because the salary cap forms a nice big allowance doesn’t mean owners have to spend the whole thing; spending less on players and then building a local fan base through local broadcast television rights, local cable coverage, or even community outreach like low-cost ticket distribution will ensure the “financial certainty” that figured so prominently in the lockout settlement. Paying players to jet set between teams only ensures that at some point, owners are going to scratch their heads trying to figure out how to de-cap-itate a long-term contract with a player who is nursing a sore groin for what seems like half a season.
Final A-Rod comparison: Mike Greenberg of ESPN Radio claims that A-Rod is going to escape from New York this year, setting up “the biggest free agency” in recent history. Ask the kids who follow baseball if they care. None of them want to be A-Rod, proving that maybe the Beatles were right: Money can’t buy you love. But it can buy you a pair of centers.