Dear Leafs Fans: It Isn’t Your Fault

It is a story we have all heard before: the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a bad team for a long time because they know that no matter what they do, they’ll sell out every game and make a ludicrous amount of money.

The enduring popularity of the story is easy to understand. As fun as it is to berate Leafs fans for the failures of their team, isn’t it more fun to blame them? It’s not just their problem, it’s their fault that way.

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There is a problem with the argument: it is largely without merit.

This particular article was inspired by Esquire writer Chris Jones, who in a piece on fans using the word ‘we’ to describe their team included the following:

If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can probably say "we," because your faithful devotion to that miserable team is the principal reason they will always be shit. You might as well accept your share of the blame.

Jones’ piece is on other matters, so he doesn’t spend additional time explaining why he feels that way. Still, the argument itself is pretty self-explanatory. The only problem is that it doesn’t make sense.

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The economics are weak, for starters. Hockey humourist Down Goes Brown wrote a great piece refuting the economic argument in late 2008, and while I recommend the entire article, the basic argument is easily summarized: the Leafs make some of their money on tickets, which is guaranteed income in a city like Toronto, but they gather far more money from other avenues – avenues which would be more lucrative if they were a contending team every year.

So yes, the Leafs make money every year. Lots of money. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t make much, much more if they were successful – in other words, there is significant incentive to improve the club, even if they aren’t worried about competing for attendance.

There’s also the fact that poor attendance doesn’t guarantee a team will adjust their approach. The New York Islanders have iced consistently poor teams for years; yet they’ve also ranked near the bottom of league attendance going back over that entire span. The Florida Panthers haven’t won a playoff game since 1997; their attendance has been in the same range. Fans of the Phoenix Coyotes haven’t shown up; instead of a better team they’ve faced repeated threats of no team at all.  The fans in these places have withdrawn their support, and while the teams have undoubtedly felt the impact financially it hasn’t magically made them competitive; instead, they’ve been worse than Toronto. 

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Another factor is that the Leafs’ monopoly on the Toronto hockey market doesn’t offer their general manager a monopoly on his job. Nobody denies the Leafs’ willingness to spend money, and nobody denies their willingness to fire an incompetent general manager. In what way, then, could supposed financial complacency stretch into hockey operations – they’re separate departments, and there’s no reason anyone would feel safe in the role of general manager, head coach, or anywhere else if their performance is poor.

To recap:

  • A significant portion of the Maple Leafs’ revenue is impacted by team performance, giving them financial incentive to improve the on-ice product.
  • There are teams that have struggled for years despite significant financial incentive to improve.
  • The Leafs continue to spend on their hockey team despite their monopoly on the Toronto hockey market.
  • The men making hockey decisions face the same incentives as employees of other teams, as their jobs are as at-risk as those working for other clubs.

In other words, when looking for an explanation of the team’s post-lockout playoff-less run, it would be a mistake to blame the fans.

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