The National Hockey League should be starting the most grueling regular season in sports this month, but instead it has announced that games will be canceled. The owners have locked out the players for the third time in 16 years. The last lockout cost us the entire 2004-05 season. It was only the second time that the Stanley Cup was not awarded in over 100 years, and in 04-05 it was not because of an outbreak of Spanish Flu.
“The Lockout” as it became known cost fans a full season and was crushing. It cost the players and owners millions of dollars. It set the game back immensely in popularity (at least in the states if not in Canada). Workers in and around stadiums lost their livelihoods for that year, and for some permanently. I know it would have made the year I was spending fighting a war in Iraq a little easier for me personally.
Few people thought that the league would have been stupid enough to lock the players out again and put another season at risk. But that is exactly what has happened and someday we may have to denote Lockout 1 versus Lockout 2 for the ones that cost us seasons like we separate the wars that should have ended all wars.
In trying to explain the latest lockout, everyone should understand that it is in fact a LOCKOUT. If I hear one more person in the hockey media say the words “work stoppage” I’m likely to go all stick, gloves, jersey on their ass. I understand why that evil genius acting as a mouthpiece for the owners, Garry Bettman, would never want to say that the people he represents, the owners, have locked out the players but the reality is that it is a lockout.
Donald Fehr (the Executive Director of the NHL Players Association) has it totally correct when he says that this is an owner imposed lockout. This is not a strike where the players have decided not to play, and this is for sure not some neutral cowardice work stoppage.
The main disagreement of this lockout is not even between the players and the owners. It is between the profitable teams and the ones losing money season after season even if they qualify for revenue sharing. There is a lot of talk about the percent of revenue taken by each side, and I will happily explain that all, but the reality is that the owners want to pay the players less to try and help struggling franchises rather than increase the revenue sharing system to look more like what the NFL uses.
About ten teams in the NHL will make money every year, about ten can only make money with a playoff run, while ten teams seem to hemorrhage money year after year.
Other than Toronto and Montreal, the teams that make money do so because they win and give their fans a reason to spend their money on a team while the teams losing money do so because they either put out a poor product on the ice or make very poor management decisions. If the owners want to ensure that every team makes money despite performance, then they need to pool all profits and dole them out equally. Otherwise profits will be linked to performance just like every other business.
And now on to percent of revenue, a hockey wonks dream…
The talk one hears in the hockey media about the big stumbling block is the idea of the percent of hockey related revenue (HRR) shared between the owners and the players. Before Lockout 1 there was no salary cap and players got upwards of 80% of HRR. After the loss of that season the players agreed to a salary cap and only 57% of HRR.
This year’s negotiations started with an offer from the owners that was seen even to those who backed the owners as a slap in the face of the players. They wanted to reduce what would be considered HRR and then bring the players’ share to 47%.
The NHLPA in return acted like that offer never happened and made an offer themselves to roll down their percent of HRR as revenue grows, but the owners say they do not have faith in their product and thus it will not grow as the NHLPA think it will. This lowering of percent of HRR over time rather than in the first year of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is important. If they lowered it in year one then the players would take a pay cut on the contacts that were signed under the previous CBA, to include the rash of massive contacts that were signed just hours before the CBA expired and the owners locked the players out.
If the owners did in fact negotiate the contacts already signed by players in good faith, then there is no way that they can roll back those contracts in year one of a new CBA. However, it appears that those contracts were not signed in good faith by the owners because that is what they want the players to accept before they even talk about substantive issues towards a new CBA.
Most analysts seem to agree that the deal that will get hockey back is a 50/50 split of HRR, but both sides clearly want a win and in the NHLPA case may need a win to survive. Therefore if the game is going to continue within this league the owners need to let the player get down to 50% over the course of a few years so that everyone can tweet that they won. This new CBA also needs to protect the owners from each other so that they can all at least not bleed out cash year after year.
I am clearly and undeniably a union guy who believes in fighting for our rights as the working class. This includes sports unions. With a lockout of NBA players, NFL players and referees, and this NHL lockout it seems like sports owners have made it a regular tactic to lock players out to reach “pressure points” rather than negotiating with their employees as adults and partners.
The struggle the NHLPA is fighting is the same struggle I watched unions fighting throughout The Rust Belt where I grew up. Factory workers are always told that the factory would close if they did not work more for less money. This is the struggle of working people on and off the ice.
Isn’t it time we see it that way?
Check out Geoff breaking down owner greed on his September broadcast at EdgeofSports Radio with Dave Zirin, where sports and politics collide. Also, check out Geoff this Friday at 1pm ET. (Edge of Sports Radio is broadcast on Sirius XM Satellite Radio – Sirius Channel 94 & XM Channel 208 Friday at 1 pm ET/10 am PT and is repeated throughout the weekend.)
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