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NHL

The Salary Cap Is A Psyop

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 7: Mitchell Marner #16 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits for a faceoff against the Montreal Canadiens during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on April 7, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 3-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mitchell Marner
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Becoming a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs is the best decision I ever made; I never have to worry about running short on communal rage. Witness the Mitch Marner contract, still providing a lot of people a lot of talking points. You heard a lot about Marner’s contract after the end of last year’s playoffs, and this year’s playoffs, and you will almost certainly hear about it again when Zach Hyman goes wherever he is going this summer. It is a big contract; for hockey it is an extremely big contract. There are players who are indisputably better than Mitch Marner making less money than him, and fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are furious about that. Many of them think the organization disastrously overpaid him and are furious about it, while some of them think the organization overpaid him by a normal amount, which then became a disaster given what the pandemic did to league revenues; they are also furious about it. Someone, somewhere, doesn’t think he was overpaid at all; that person is still furious about William Nylander’s contract. There is, of course, a minority opinion that the relative open-handedness with which Marner was treated is going to, ultimately, redound to the benefit of the Maple Leafs as a hockey team, enabling them to sign free agents and to extract the best from their players who will play up to their potential knowing they’ll be treated fairly by the powers that be—a position I want to believe in, but which makes me feel like I’m nodding enthusiastically along to a broadcast-on-NPR-knockoff-TED-Talk where a CEO tells you he improved productivity 150 percent by implementing a no-assholes rule.

I would like to advance an entirely different way of thinking about the boatload of cash that Marner received. Just like Red Bull, and Intact Insurance, and the iPhone, the Leafs benefit by association with Marner’s homegrown Toronto boy good cheer; he is in that sense more valuable to them than Mikko Rantanen. And if we allow ourselves to consider Marner’s value to the Leafs as icon, as advertising emblem, his outsized contract, if he can manage to play well enough to make it plausible, is not a bug but a feature, a form of the same premium pricing that leaves some portion of us thinking that Prozac is better than fluoxetine not in spite of the price difference but because of it. After all, the Leafs are not just buying Mitch Marner’s services, they are selling them. They are telling us that we want to watch a hockey player worth eight figures annually, that we want to buy tickets and turn on the television and drink the Flavor Aid. Their case that Mitch Marner is a star is not just unimpeded by the amount of money he is paid; it is actively enhanced by it. There is a popular belief that hockey’s hard cap is bad for the rich clubs, but think of it this way: The Leafs got to sign a splashy, expensive, controversial contract and not actually pay all that much money for it.

The strong version of this theory makes me sound like a crazy person. It asks you to believe that Brendan Shanahan—Brendan Shanahan!—cares more about Mitch Marner’s marketability than the on-ice success of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The weak version of this theory, by contrast, is something we’ve known all along: that entertainment is what sports are selling, that the NHL is marketing itself these days by reference to its stars, that Mitch Marner being a star and a kind of genial-seeming boy-band type guy has its own value to the team.

Even though we all know that, we didn’t talk about it when Marner signed his contract. We talked about what it would mean for the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances to have this much salary tied up in four players, about what Marner’s ceiling was, and whether he could drive his own line, and whether they should have played him on a line with John Tavares, but we didn’t talk about the money that MLSE stood to make off Mitch Marner. Mainstream economic thought holds that the value of something is whatever someone is willing to pay for it. While this is obviously a fucked-up lie when it comes to things like insulin prices, it seems worth allowing in the context of what a major business enterprise is willing to pay a hockey player.

I would like to propose that one reason we didn’t talk about the money MLSE stood to make is precisely because of the hard cap. The hockey overlords give us, every year, a number in the form of a salary cap, and that is the number that you are allowed to make your hockey team out of and there is no getting around it. It’s that dumb meme come to life. It’s also unlike the soft caps in the other three Big Four leagues, which offer all kinds of creative loopholes or the option to just pay a tax to spend more. The NHL’s cap has more than just a nominal relationship to how much money the NHL makes, but it excludes all kinds of things. Like, say, any money from a betting facility one was allowed to operate as an owner of a professional sports team. Or the money from the sale of a franchise. Or money paid to induce a franchise to stay put. All kinds of things that rich people contemplating buying a hockey team might care a lot about as a source of money, none of them included for purposes of determining the salary cap. All things that can be a little tough to quantify and about which there’s not a ton of publicly available information. 

Again, there’s a strong version of this and a weak version of this. The strong version says that our NHL overlords give us a number precisely to busy our brains with constructing the best possible imaginary hockey teams and crowning ourselves the Damien Hirst of CapFriendly.Com or whatever. The strong version says, oh, sports fans care about the business side of things these days? They can more closely identify with creating a spreadsheet than with sniping glove-side high at 100 mph from the point? They like to think that they’re savvy? Let’s distract them with an enormous document spelling out exactly how many business-class flights the club has to pay for the player’s spouse to make in case of relocation; let’s let them play busy executive. The weak version says that we as a species do a lot better with the known knowns than the known unknowns, much less the unknown unknowns, and that it is hard to maintain the distinction between the quantifiable form of success for a sports team, which is winning, and the other form of success for a sports team, which is making a lot of money, especially when the two are not unconnected. In general, teams that win a lot make more money and everybody knows that, and so we talk about the two forms of success as if they are indistinguishable, and this is true of fans and general managers and owners alike, and it is also true that for all of these categories it is in our interest to do so. 

That goes for fans not incidentally but especially—we are the ones that truly need to believe our teams are pure vehicles for the attainment of victory. The hard cap is a psyop designed to distract from the larger picture, but it is also aimed at giving us what we want, and the surety of a fixed number within which we can argue about how much Mitch Marner makes without thinking about how much we as consumers are paying and who we are paying it to. And the psyop is all the more pernicious for how welcome it is. We are not enemy pilots being implored to defect; we are congressmen being wined and dined. And when we are told that the weakness of Toronto’s depth is because its stars are making too much money we nod knowingly. 

This is not really a plea for pity for Mitch Marner. I just find it interesting to think about. I find myself believing that conspiracy theorists are really the half-cocked optimists—they believe that things are the way they are because of a handful of bad actors in positions of power. It is much more unnerving to accept that things are the way they are because a lot of us find it easier and more satisfying that they remain this way. In the car with my mother, who is not a sports fan, I tried to explain why I thought hockey’s hard cap was a psyop. Oh, she said, it’s like how when you’re on hold forever you wind up pissy with the person answering the phone, even though it’s the fault of the company who understaffed the line. Yeah, I said, it’s exactly like that.