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Lightning: Stoppage benefits us financially

When it comes to the work stoppage many are predicting will shut down the NHL next season, Palace Sports & Entertainment has done the math. By its reckoning, it might just add up.

Lightning president Ron Campbell said the team's owner would lose significantly less money on its Tampa operation in the next fiscal year (July through June 2005) if the Lightning did not play in 2004-05.

Campbell said the message should be "chilling" to anyone concerned about the league's financial health. It also is an indication Lightning ownership will be with the hard-liners when it comes to negotiating with the players association on a new collective bargaining agreement.

The current agreement runs out in September. Some predict a work stoppage of 12 to 18 months.

"It is a message that has been written for months and months and not just in Tampa Bay," Campbell said. "The system is just not working. It is a chilling statement but factual."

Campbell said Palace Sports expects a cash loss of about $10-million this year if the Lightning does not make the playoffs. Campbell said that would bring losses since June 1999, when the company and owner Bill Davidson bought the team and the St. Pete Times Forum lease, to about $58-million.

Campbell wouldn't give specifics of the company's hypothetical bottom line should the Lightning not play next season. He did say an internal study figured losses would be cut by more than 50 percent.

Campbell said the study includes "an enormous amount of variables." He also said being without hockey would be financially beneficial "for the very short term because then you get to a point where you lose fan base and people will find other things to do."

Still, he said, "If you don't have to write payroll checks, you're better off."

The Lightning's payroll this season is $33.6-million.

Payroll and the percentage of league revenues it swallows will be the league's prime focus when bargaining finally gets serious. The NHL says about 76 percent of revenues go to player salaries, far more than the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball.

The league prefers a salary cap, or what it calls "cost certainty," to control costs. A cap of $31-million appears to be the starting point. The players association prefers a luxury tax similar to the one used by Major League Baseball.

Tim Taylor, the Lightning's player representative, said the way baseball avoided a shutdown in 2002 in the face of a predicted fan revolt should be a lesson for those who see benefits of not playing.

"I worry for our franchise because you don't want to lose what we've built," Taylor said. "We've built something good over the last two years, and to have that washed away, I don't know if with this franchise people would want to start all over again. I think that's what they'd be doing."

Said Campbell: "I'd much rather play games and be able to make a small profit."

Campbell said that is why Lightning ownership will want a hard line on negotiations. And why he reiterated the outcome of those negotiations will be a major factor in determining if Palace Sports stays in the Tampa Bay market.

"Tell me one reason why you wouldn't have the resolve to get this fixed," he said. "You want the system fixed. You want the league to have a chance to be successful. You want to give our business a chance to be successful."

Campbell said he is optimistic the season will be preserved.

"I admit I've been in the minority," he said. "But I am optimistic because of the resolve of the players and ownership groups and the severity of the situation, and that there will be, when the time is right, a very serious and focused negotiation."

If negotiations fail, Palace Sports will have to fill as much as possible the 41 home dates reserved for the Lightning.

"One of two things is going to happen," Campbell said. "We're going to lose less money or have a system that, when it is fixed, will give us an opportunity to be viable.

"No one wants to miss games, and that goes for the players, ownership and the league office. But we've got to be on common ground."