Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 4, 2012

The Good And The Bad Of Decisions To Cancel

A NOTE TO U.S. READERS: Tuesday is Election Day. Please honor your freedom by casting your ballot.

Two major sporting events were cancelled on Friday. For one, it was a case of organizers belatedly realizing that while at their best sports provide us with pleasurable distractions from everyday worries, there are times when distractions are just that; unnecessary events that sap energy and resources better directed elsewhere. For the other it was a league in the midst of a labor dispute making a preemptive strike by erasing from the schedule the most pleasurable and highly rated event on its regular season calendar. The first was overdue but a wise move nonetheless. The second was premature and political, and will be looked upon kindly only if it somehow kick starts negotiations to save a season.

From the moment Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the Jersey shore on Monday, the fate of Sunday’s New York City Marathon was cast into doubt. As the storm moved on into the Midwest, much of the initial media focus in the New York area was on Manhattan, where there were widespread power outages south of 40th Street, flooding in the Battery at the southern tip of the island and in all seven subway tunnels beneath the East River. But the marathon, which began in 1970 with repeated circuits around Central Park before expanding six years later to a course that covers all five boroughs, doesn’t go anywhere near the southern half of the island. So perhaps it was not entirely surprising when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced on Tuesday that the race would go on as scheduled.

For her part, Mary Wittenberg, the CEO of New York Road Runners which organizes the race, made it clear that the decision on whether to run the marathon was up to the mayor. Once Bloomberg gave the green light, she steadfastly defended the importance of running the race as scheduled, saying that it would provide both an emotional and economic boost to the city.

But even as Bloomberg and Wittenberg were championing the race as a symbol of Gotham’s resilience it was becoming heartbreakingly clear that darkness in lower Manhattan and a crippled subway system were the least of the city’s problems. In the Breezy Point section of Queens a wind-blown fire laid waste to an entire neighborhood. With firefighters unable to quickly reach the area because of flooding, more than 100 homes were destroyed. Along the shoreline in Brooklyn and Queens, and beyond the city’s limits out into Long Island, pictures of devastation began to appear. It was not until Thursday, even as the lights started coming back on in sections of Manhattan and some subway trains started rolling again, that Sandy’s impact on the city’s fifth and sometimes forgotten borough of Staten Island started to make the evening news. All along its south-facing coast, Staten Island neighborhoods had been obliterated, with many homes ripped right off their foundations by the storm surge. The borough is the site of the start line for the Marathon, and as the death toll in the city as a whole and on Staten Island in particular quickly mounted, a growing chorus of politicians called for the cancellation of the race.

At first the Mayor and the Road Runners chief resisted, with the former incongruously asserting that the Marathon would not divert any city resources from the rescue and recovery effort and the latter insisting that “This isn’t about running. This is about helping the city.” By Friday though, even some of the runners were expressing discomfort about continuing with the race. Finally Friday afternoon Bloomberg reversed course and announced that for the first time since it began, there would be no New York City Marathon in 2012.

The unfortunate delay in making a decision that should have been obvious from the start created its own set of problems. Hearing repeated assurances that the Marathon would go on; roughly 40,000 of the more than 47,000 runners entered in the race had made their way to the city, often at considerable expense. With many of the amateur runners using the race as a means to raise money for a wide variety of charities, the impact on those efforts was sure to hurt. There will also be an unquestioned financial impact on businesses along the race route, and it is unclear how New York Road Runners will deal with the loss of the organization’s primary revenue source.

But none of those concerns could justify holding an event that would indeed require significant city resources at a time when smoke is still rising from Breezy Point and an estimated 40,000 are homeless even as nighttime temperatures start to fall toward freezing. The decision to cancel the Marathon was painfully late in coming; but it was still the right decision.

On the other hand the NHL wasted no time in cancelling its premier regular season game, the Winter Classic. Set as always for New Year’s Day, the game would have pit two Original Six teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings, against one another at an outdoor rink set up on the field at the University of Michigan’s football stadium. The game was expected to draw more than 110,000, far and away the largest crowd ever for a hockey game.

Although New Year’s Day is still two months away, the league cancelled the contest on Friday, citing the logistical demands of staging the event. However many of those demands had nothing to do with the game itself, but rather with a variety of ancillary events held in conjunction with the Winter Classic, such as a slate of college and minor league games scheduled to be held outdoors at Detroit’s Comerica Park the last week in December. Leadership of the players’ union indicated that they had expected the league to cancel the game as a negotiating tactic, and suggested that it could always be reinstated, even at a later date, if a settlement was reached to end the now 50-day old lockout. New York Rangers center Brad Richards reflected that sentiment on Friday, saying “You can play it in February. The stadium’s not going anywhere.” But Bill Daley, the NHL’s Deputy Commissioner, was unequivocal, saying there was no change the game would be reinstated. Rather the league’s plan is for the same two teams to play at the same site on New Year’s Day 2014.

That of course assumes that the NHL will be playing again by that time. If any good can come out of the league’s unnecessarily quick decision to cancel the one game that attracts casual fans to see what the NHL has to offer, it would be by generating some movement in the labor talks that have been stalled for more than two weeks. On Saturday it appeared that might be just what happened. The two sides met for the first time since October 18th at an undisclosed location, which presumably means Dick Cheney’s long unused bunker. While little has been said about the state of the talks, there are rumors that the league is showing a greater willingness to “make whole” current contracts which might otherwise be cut under any new and, from the players’ perspective, reduced percentage of revenues going to salaries. Both the league and the players association have said that talks will continue in the next few days. Still union head Donald Fehr issued a memo to players and agents warning that they “should not read too much” into reports of any new flexibility from the league.

There is still time to rescue a respectable chunk of a season, perhaps 60 or so games and a full postseason tournament that the league, its players and its fans could all view as legitimate. But the sand is running inexorably through the hourglass. Cancelling this season’s Winter Classic seems to have given both sides a new sense of urgency. But if they fail to act on it, they should expect to see fans start drifting away. That would make next season’s Winter Classic just another game in an increasingly marginal sport.

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