Fickle Fingers Of Fate Bedevil Bucs And Bolts

Whether the Bucs make the playoffs this year, much less advance any further, is sobering testimony to factors beyond the control of Jon Gruden, Monte Kiffin, Rich McKay and any and all Glazers.

The NFL, with its premium on parity, might as well stand for “Not For Long” — as in the reign of defending Super Bowl champions. The salary cap, free agency, tougher schedules for high achievers and reverse-order-of-finish college draft conspire against a Super Bowl redux, let alone a dynasty.

Then add the vagaries of refereeing (Oops, that on-side kick recovery really wasn’t legal and shouldn’t have been allowed) and the misfortune of crippling injuries, and it’s easy to see how a Super Bowl year can be followed by a sub-par season.

Much more frustrating, however, are the scenarios that could unfold for the Lightning. Under the stern and savvy leadership of coach John Tortorella, the Lightning are no longer a parody of an NHL team. They are good and getting better. Expectations legitimately include a Stanley Cup run.

The timing, however, couldn’t be worse — or more ironic.

The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ association expires Sept. 15, 2004. To date, discussions have gone nowhere.

The critical issue is salary cap — not unlike what the NFL imposes. No other major pro league spends a higher percentage (76 percent) of revenues on player salaries and benefits. And no other league needs one more.

The NHL is not only not flush like the NFL, but it’s in serious financial straits. Last year the league’s 30 teams totaled operating losses of some $300 million. Two franchises, Ottawa and Buffalo, filed for bankruptcy. Its network television money is a veritable pittance. Teams are overly dependent on ticket sales — just to limit losses. It’s no way to run — or stay — in business.

While the players’ association remains adamant in its opposition to a salary cap, the owners are doing nothing to dispel the notion that a lockout awaits. Should that occur, and talk is of a stoppage that could last more than a season, it could be disastrous for the NHL. It doesn’t have the staying power to survive — at least intact — such a shutdown showdown. Smaller-market franchises in areas without an established hockey culture — such as the Lightning — are especially vulnerable. Last year the Lightning had its most successful season ever — yet still lost a reported $10 million.

The Bucs post-championship challenge was a formidable one: to defy the odds and repeat. Should the Lightning’s Cup runneth over, the Bolt’s challenge could be even more daunting: to defy economic reality and stay in business.

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