CapUnfriendly: Monumental Sports to shut down hockey site beloved by fans

FOR NEARLY A DECADE, (Capfriendly to its friends) — an acclaimed website specializing in the business side of the National Hockey League (NHL) — has enabled its users to track trades, build fantasy rosters, and navigate the legalese of contract buyouts and collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). However, on Sunday, June 9, Elliot Friedman reported on SportsNet that the Washington Capitals and their parent company, Monumental Sports, will be acquiring and subsequently closing the popular fan site.

For the uninitiated, Capfriendly was vital in publicizing the NHL’s often opaque player salary structure. Following the 2005 lockout, the NHL implemented what is known as a “hard cap” – limiting the amount each of the league’s 32 teams can spend on player salaries in an attempt to foster league parity (and suppress player salary growth). With the hard cap each team must meet predetermined maximum and minimum salary requirements ($83.5 million and $61.7 million, respectively, for the 2023-24 season) for the combined salaries of each team's 23-man roster. The NHL’s hard cap system also places restrictions on individual contract terms. For example, teams cannot sign players for more than seven or eight years (depending on the circumstances of their signing) and there is a maximum allowed salary ($16.7 million for the 2023-24 season).

This is a simple explanation, and there are many conditions and loopholes (cough, cough Mark Stone) outlined by the NHL Players Association CBA. Capfriendly, with its FAQs, tools and calculators, provides much-needed resources to those seeking to understand the byzantine nature of roster management, lowering the barrier to entry and democratizing a fairly esoteric subject. (Although even NHL GMs used the site's services.)

CapFriendly, set to close in July, was used avidly by fans and even by GMs. The simple design attracted a dedicated userbase and community. Open information and analysis provided by the site represented a threat to the corporate machinations of Monumental Sports.

Capfriendly was critical for my fan journey. It spoke to the analytical part of my brain and helped me move from just watching games and playing those NHL video games with my buddies in the frat house, inspiring me to think more critically about off-ice issues. Once I understood the “meta game,” I found the league far more engaging: new storylines developed along with a greater sense of continuity, and it sparked a renewed interest in the sport. Monumental Sport’s acquisition and public destruction of Capfriendly will inflict a major loss to the wider hockey community.

On Wednesday, June 12, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan announced that the acquisition of Capfriendly is meant to bolster the team's inhouse analytical capabilities. While this is understandable it nevertheless has left fans and even some NHL teams in the lurch, as Elliott Friedman noted in his 32 Thoughts podcast. As a result of this acquisition, the NHL will become more difficult for the lay fan to follow until another website takes Capfriendly’s place. Unfortunately, I have a feeling this will be easier said than done. Capfriendly’s way of displaying data in a user-friendly and well-indexed manner has made it a lynchpin of hockey forums, independent research, sports coverage and analysis.

Not to be overly sentimental, but I will miss Capfriendly dearly. Despite its dull outward appearance and extremely niche subject matter, it was a reliable source of entertainment and information. In fact, the only solace I take in all this is that it looks like it will still be around for the start of free agency on July 1st, because who doesn’t like a little cap schadenfreude? And as I sit in my Rangers jersey and process my own feelings about the news, I’m reminded of a case study, from an Intro to Macroeconomics course I took way back when on the Theory of Enclosure. What can I say? I need something to occupy my time after that crushing loss in the Conference Finals…

The concept of “Enclosure” stems from English history: after the Norman Conquest, pastoral land, which was previously open for the peasantry to exercise their customary right to roam and right of way (essentially the right to access open land and publicly available easements to get to one’s destination), were fenced off for commercial endeavors; effectively depriving access to everyone who wasn’t in the service of a feudal landlord. In a fit of aggrieved Googling on this, I uncovered a passage from Karl Marx's Capital that resonated with me. Marx establishes the period of Enclosure, or “land grabbing” as he so delicately puts it, as the effective beginning of the transition away from feudalism and the process of liberalization. He outright states that the act of Enclosure represented a “systematic theft of communal property” that began the process in which the largely rural and agrarian English working class became the urban proletariat that graced the pages of Charles Dickens.

Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks or sickles as a landlord observes.

While Capfriendly is far removed from the English countryside, its impending demise is another example of a startling trend where billionaires come to see the value in an established online community they had no part in creating or contributing to and subsequently move to acquire it to accomodate their independent purposes. One need only look at Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter to see how this plays out – to the detriment of the population that uses the system and delivers its value. 

I have no doubt that Capfriendly will eventually be replaced by some upstart hockey enthusiasts, just as Capfriendly itself originally replaced CapGeek. For a little history, CapGeek was the forerunner to Capfriendly, and was closed down immediately prior to the death of its creator, Matthew Wuest; Wuest refused several opportunities to sell the website that he maintained as a labor of love for the game and the community. In fact, in a delicious twist of irony, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman once stated that a CapGeek-style website was not worth investing in as “it’s not something driving fan interest.” (Anyone still wonder why we take time to boo this man every year?)

But now that at least one of the NHL board of governors (more on him later…) has realized the error of the league’s shortsightedness, we as a community, just as the medieval English peasants before us, must circumvent new enclosures. This, of course, will require a community adaptation that will in all likelihood go without any recompense or acknowledgement of loss. This perpetuates a Sisyphean cycle where online communities must constantly reinvent the wheel and recreate the tools needed to enjoy a common interest, only for the idle rich to come around and take it away from them once it becomes “worth having.”

And why not? Legally speaking the public at large has no formal ownership or vested interest in the website. Sure it's been the time, attention, and subsequent analysis (not to mention the uncompensated work of Matthew Wuest) of fans that drove ad revenue and allowed the developers to continuously adapt the website, building ever more complex service offerings; but that’s ecommerce for you! The invisible hand of the market giveth and taketh indeed. On the surface, this may seem a trivial matter – but it serves as a microcosm of a broader issue with capitalism. The rich can leverage their innumerable wealth to claim communal resources and the rest of society must grit its teeth and bear it. Whether it be a website to better engage with your choice form of escapism or an oil refinery belching carcinogenic emissions, the MO of capitalism is made clear for all to see: privatize profits and socialize losses.

Photo of Monumental Sports owner Ted Leonsis from 2024. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

For Ted Leonsis, founder, chairman, and CEO of Monumental Sports, this isn’t even the first sports-related transgression he’s made against the public good this year. Just a few months ago Leonsis managed to fleece the District for $515 million dollars in stadium renovations in the same year that it faces an austerity budget that would see major cuts to, among other things, early childhood development programs and public transportation. In fact, this public funding proposal represented a $15 million increase to the District’s original bid to keep Monumental Sports’ teams in Capital One Arena. After all, why not reward the man who, in his efforts to move the home of the Capitals and Wizards to Alexandria, launched an embarrassing national media campaign centered on racial fearmongering tactics straight out of the Nixon playbook?

That’s quite the heel turn! It’s time to accept reality, folks: neither Ted Leonsis nor Monumental Sports are a friend to the public. Their recent actions show that they are a poor steward of the game of hockey, a bad neighbor and citizen of the District, and DC should look long and hard at its priorities as it seeks to weather Covid aftershocks.

But on the bright side, it’s not like Mayor Bowser is on the precipice of being swindled by yet another billionaire sports owner. After all, in the immortal words of President George W. Bush: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well, you can’t get fooled again…

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