I’m a pretty crazy hockey fan. I take my hockey obsession to the nerd level, analyzing numbers, watching stats, and basically getting technical on every aspect of the game. They say that jocks are just sports nerds, but I’m not a jock. I’m just a hockey nerd. The NHL season is days away from starting, after almost being cancelled for the second time in seven years. That’s right, for those of you who don’t follow sports, the National Hockey League has had three work stoppages in the past 18 years, one of which cost them the 2004-2005 season. All three of those work stoppages have been lockouts, which is fundamentally different from strikes. In a lockout, the owners try to hold the players over a barrel and demand concessions. In a strike, the players do the opposite. I’m supportive of strikes, not so much of lockouts.
Now, people start to get weird when discussing labor disputes where the laborers in question have an average salary that starts with 6 figures and goes up from there. I can understand why people like to describe them as “millionaires arguing with billionaires over money.” The economics are still the same: The owners, after making record sums of money, demanded salary and benefits concessions from the players. In the 2004-2005 lockout, the league, citing economic hardships (of which there certainly were), forced the players into a 24%, off-the-top pay cut on every contract. The previous CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) had players making 76% of all league revenues. The 2005 CBA dropped this number to 57%. Last September, the League’s initial bargaining offer dropped that further to 45%. Let me reiterate: The NHL wanted to drop the player’s share of the revenue from over 3/4 to under 1/2 in the span of seven years. That’s a pretty sizable pay cut, even when you consider that the league made $3 billion last year, a record high. Understandably, the players said “no thank you.”
This dance continued for over four months before the two sides brokered an agreement. This included federal mediators, secret meetings, and the announcement of a deal by the Player’s Association that was cut short by a phone call from the League as the press conference was happening. It ranged from the comical to the frustrating, but a central theme throughout seemed to be that the League had no desire to bargain fairly, or even ‘bargain’ at all. They wanted what was in their initial offer, and they were going to get it.
They didn’t get it.
Commissioner Gary Bettman declared that a 5-year contract cap was the “hill we’re going to die on,” and they wound up with a 7-8 year cap. Granted, that’s lower than the complete lack of a cap (with some 15-year contracts floating around) that had been before, but to resort to battlefield terminology was just ludicrous. Players started with 50% of revenues, showing a complete willingness to bargain from the outset. In the end, the players managed to fend off the worst of the League’s demands. The real problem, however, goes unaddressed. The owners are a fractious group, with about 10 teams making the bulk of the revenue and steadfastly refusing to share it. In the 90s, the League, bolstered by the star-studded success of the Los Angeles Kings, decided to expand into markets that one doesn’t associate with ice hockey. Teams sprung up in Florida, Georgia, and, Tennessee, and a few teams moved from Northern climes to Arizona, North Carolina and Texas. Nearly all of those teams have struggled financially, some even after winning the Stanley Cup. Additionally, more established teams were still struggling to make ends meet, and the League as a whole was loosing money. In 2004, the owners had no intention of discussing revenue sharing, which is a staple in other leagues. A rising tide lifts all ships, as they say, and the strong support the weak to ensure a robust league. The NHL owners don’t seem to have grasped that, because they steadfastly refused any concept of revenue sharing this time around. The negotiations essentially boiled down to thirty different owners trying to screw each other and the players.
The new CBA is for 10 years with an opt-out after 8, so there’s a good chance we’ll be back to this madness in 2021. I’m one of those suckers that will keep rolling back in regardless, so I’m just happy they’ll be back to the ice on Saturday. I’m just scared that they’ve done even more damage to the sport’s perception, which they cannot afford.
But hey, sportspuck is back!