Collective bargaining agreement negotiations between NHL players and owners have officially gone from bad to worse. Since last I wrote about this story, no progress has really been made beyond general philosophical talks and fundamental disagreements. If no agreement is reached by September 15th, there will definitely be a lockout of some kind.
Commissioner Gary Bettman’s words during these negotiations on Thursday referred back to the fans in what has universally been regarded as a kind of terrible platitude: “We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans.” To which everyone has said: really? Because they might not fit your definition of “great” if this is allowed to go to yet another lockout.
The pre-lockout NHL in 2004 was struggling, and in some franchises, completely hemorrhaging money. It also has the legacy of being a slap in the face to fans from the actual faces of the league–its players. They refused a salary cap that historically has made leagues more competitive, as it did for the NBA in the 1980’s. It took a long time to convince the NHLPA that the concept of revenue sharing would not negatively impact their job security. In fact, it seems to be getting easier and easier for players to get their big paydays–such has become the level of parity.
When we refer to “new fans” of the game, we are invariably by this point referring to fans who came into the post-lockout NHL which has enjoyed unprecedented levels of success, record high television ratings in the United States and rising interest in even the most nontraditional hockey markets.
But the current CBA negotiations are moving away from the compromise the players and owners made in 2005. If this goes to a lockout, all of those new fans will give it a legacy of being the fault of the owners as they attempt to gain more control over the success they have had over the last six seasons. This includes having more control over the way that players receive their salary, changing not only contract length, but the rules of free agency, possibly tying players to the team that drafted them, barring a trade, for the majority of their careers. Obviously, the players don’t want this, for very personal reasons.
Here’s the other thing though: according to NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr, the reason that talks are continually breaking down is purely economic. The two sides cannot agree on how to divide league revenue–i.e. what percentage of the money should be spent on what (and whom). So, while the most shocking demands to come out of CBA meetings have been related to player contracts, the “philosophical issues” still come back to dollar signs and how they are divvied up.
Most fans–even hardcore fans–can’t get a handle on that issue or how it works. But most of them will have a lot easier of a time siding with the players when all they seem to want is a somewhat similar agreement to the one that brought them into the 2005-06 season. And when the most comforting words from the league’s commissioner place the burden of the NHL surviving on its fans, even in a poetic sense, things clearly do not look promising.
As much as we fans like to think that we could make this happen, we’re only a part of the equation. The players have to agree to play, and the owners have to manage their businesses. On the surface, it’s a straightforward arrangement.
Fans who knew the NHL before the lockout know by now that it’s a business that won’t respond directly to logic. But the fans who have arrived on the scene since 2005 might not have such an easy time. For both well-established franchises and the most far-flung corners of the league, very little can be gained from postponing some kind of agreement. You can’t count on fans you patronize.
And anyway, the NHL recovered after the previous lockout not because of its already-existing wonderful fans, but because of its improved product, aggressive marketing, and suspense associated with emerging young talent — all of which created new fans. These are the fans who are actually creating the revenue that the NHL is so dearly enjoying, and these are the fans who are going to be less likely to spend more money on hockey in 2013-14 if we lose yet another whole or partial season.
Bettman’s quote is an attempt to completely deflect blame from the ownership as well as the players for the potential loss of a season–and it’s just flat-out incorrect.
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