NHL shutdown will shut out fans
Jul 20, 2012
The NHL lockout that seems to be looming on the horizon has fans worried, but really the league needs to wonder if the fans can withstand another season without. The NHL has scrapped games twice since 1994, going as far to eliminate an entire season just eight short years ago. Here is hoping that this time around both sides have learned from the past.
The 1994 season was cut to 48 games after the big markets and little markets couldn’t agree what was best for the league. This lockout came after a season in which the NHL had higher ratings than the NBA on a nightly basis. The league lost any momentum it had after the New York Rangers Stanley Cup win and a season that saw revenues and ratings at an apex. Instead of cashing in on 1994, the gap between rich teams and poor teams grew bigger and the smaller markets feared there would be no way to compete with New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Toronto. Franchises moved, player salaries escalated and nothing really was accomplished because ten years later a whole season would be missed.
In the summer of 2004, the NHL needed economic change. There was no salary cap at the time and the owners would take a hardline stance to install one. It was the first time that a major professional sport in North America cancelled an entire year due a labor dispute. In 2004, teams were losing money, the “haves” had far more than the “have-nots” and a salary cap, which the players vowed to fight, was needed. It was a contentious negotiation that cost the league, players and fans the entire season, leaving many with a bitter feeling. Some players even admitted they sacrificed a year to take a deal worse than some of the first offers that were on the table.
The lockout didn’t kill the NHL, but it didn’t resolve many of the problems and it might have created more for this negotiation. The league can argue that the work stoppage might have helped the game in some cities, but that is few and far between.
Consider Carolina one of the lucky teams to come out of the other side of the hiatus. After the lockout, the Stanley Cup arrived in the Triangle. The ’05-’06 season gave the area a taste of why hockey at the highest level is a worth the ticket prices. Canes fans have seen two recent deep postseason runs.
Other franchises were not as lucky, several teams are losing money or worse in bankruptcy. Phoenix, Nashville, Florida, all have seen attendance dips and Atlanta couldn’t hold onto its franchise. Other cities have had a hard time getting the fans back. If you believe the NHL's assertion that 60 percent of the owners are failing to make money, it is hard to say the last CBA worked out.
Players missed an entire season to add to legacies and bank accounts; owners did the same in 2004.
Surely both parties have learned from the past and smooth sailing ahead, right?
Not so fast. The owners claim they are still losing money and some of them are. The players make 57 percent of the profits. Ownership wants to see that number down to 50 percent or less if possible, more in the range of the agreement that the NFL has with their union. One small problem: the NHL does not mint money like the NFL.
The NHLPA feels like they gave up a lot in the last CBA go-round. Enter Donald Fehr, the same person baseball fans still hold responsible for the work stoppage that canceled the end of the 1994 MLB season and World Series.
Fehr is sitting across from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the man who canceled the entire 04-05 NHL season. Neither man has been known to back down from litigation or concede points to the other side without some fight. To avoid missing games, these two men can’t let ego get in the room. They have to let common sense rule these negotiations.
Fehr will play hardball. He will get the NHLPA what they want or exhaust every avenue in doing so. Bettman is shrewd and will not cave to public pressure or perception. He will try to get the best deal he can for the owners and the league.
The players know there is more money being made and Fehr will do his best to get it. Take into account that the NHLPA has been the worst run union in pro sports, the players finally have a guy who can stand up for them. It doesn’t seem likely that these two will go out for a beer and try to settle this issue as quick as possible.
So what are the sticking points between players and owners, and among the owners themselves?
The players cut of 57 percent is too high. This number has to come down, but no group is just going to give up 7 percent without a concession.
NHL player contracts are guaranteed, every dime. All the money will be paid, regardless of performance. If the players are willing to give this issue up, they might not have to cough up a big number for their cut.
Revenue sharing among the teams has to happen. This is one area where the NFL has everyone beat, but again when you print money, it is easy to share. The big clubs are always going to make more than the small ones, finding a way to divide that profit is an ownership problem. This is the place where Bettman has to represent what is best for the league, not the owners or not just the rich owners. If New York and Toronto can be convinced to share with Carolina and smaller markets, things will be better for everyone. If Bettman does his job, this issue can resolve a lot of the problems in this CBA and set labor peace for years to come.
The salary cap floor is $16 million less than the cap itself; smaller clubs would like this to be a bigger difference. Players don’t want to see this number drop, but it is more an owner versus owner issue.
The biggest issue that neither side acknowledges until it is too late is: can a business that has canceled work twice in 20 years afford to alienate their consumers again?
The fans create a television market for the product, buy the tickets and the merchandise and overall fund the league. If the NHL closes the doors for a third time, to borrow a baseball phrase, that is strike three. Small “non-traditional” markets won’t be able to survive another lost season of hockey. Any fringe fan will move on to something else. 2004 wasn’t that long ago. If the NHL does this again, why should fans have any faith in the league that it will finally get it right?
Asking a fan base to sit through another stoppage while two sides try to figure it out again is something this group can’t afford to do it if wants to keep operating in 30 cities and have salaries at the levels they have climbed to. Fans should wonder how this league is run, why both sides fail to see what is important. You know the line, if you don’t learn from history you are doomed to repeat it. Any repetition of the actions that wiped out an entire season and the NHL may be doomed to be history.