Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner

Photoby captcanuk (NHL Comissioner Gary Bettman on Flickr) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a sad, sad day for NHL fans, and for professional sports as a whole.  The NHL – led by the team owners and Commissioner Gary Bettman – could not come to terms on an agreement with the NHL Players Association  – led by Executive Director Donald Fehr and the players themselves – on a new CBA, or Collective Bargaining Agreement.  As such, the NHL has locked out all players effective 0:00am Sunday 16th September 2012, until a new agreement can be reached.

A CBA can be defined as such, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The NHL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is the basic contract between the National Hockey League (NHL) team owners and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA), designed to be arrived at through the typical labor-management negotiations of collective bargaining.

The basic issues behind this, and I may have missed some out – unintentionally – are:

  • The players’ salary is currently drawn from 57% of all Hockey Related Revenue that the league makes.
  • The exact definition of what makes up HRR is one of the most critiqued parts of this entire process, as it has not been made exactly clear, but basically it is everything from ticket sales to TV contracts to team-owned radio shows, and much more.
  • The NHL owners want to redefine HRR (even though it hasn’t really been defined at all in the first place) so that less things are covered by the term “HRR”.
  • The owners also want to reduce the figure of 57% to something more in line with the other major North American sports leagues, i.e. around 50%.  Their first offer to the NHLPA, however, was in the 43-46% range, a drastic reduction seen by most as extremely unfair and nothing more than a ridiculous “first shot”.
  • In the last lockout, in 2004-05 where the entire season was lost due to the dispute, the players made huge concessions when their salaries were cut back from the approximately 76% of league revenues, down to 54%.  The NHLPA did manage to negotiate however that this figure would rise gradually if NHL revenues rose.
  • NHL revenues did rise, from between $1-2 billion range in 2005-06, to over $3 billion in 2011-12, meaning the player share of revenues rose from 54% gradually to 57% in that time frame.
  • The owners also wish to cap the length of contracts, due to the number of issues the last few years over players being signed to contracts over 10 years in length but being structured in a way as to get a low cap hit (e.g. Kovalchuk, Hossa, etc.).  Funnily enough, this is actually to save the owners from themselves.
  • Furthermore, they have also put on the negotiating table the idea of increased length of entry level deals to 5 years, and increasing the number of NHL seasons a player has to play in order to achieve unrestricted free agency (where a player’s rights are no longer owned by any team, and can choose their destination as they wish)  from 7 years to 10 years, as well as removing arbitration rights in restricted free agency altogether (where a players’ new contract is judged by an independent arbitrator who hears from both the team and the player on why said player should receive X-amount in his new deal if they haven’t already agreed on one prior to him becoming an RFA.  This is often an ugly process that doesn’t happen very often but is still the right of the player).
  • The players are obviously trying to maintain everything they already had – the 57% share, the unlimited contract lengths, the 7 years to UFA status, arbitration rights, whilst trying to suggest amendments to how revenue is used to support struggling teams.
  • The owners contest that out of their current 43% share, after paying operating costs and salaries of all other team employees, they aren’t left with much.

Now, everyone who’s been following this has their opinions on who’s right and who’s wrong.  The general arguments go along the lines of:

  • “The owners are greedy and just trying to get more money by trying to make the players take a smaller piece of a smaller pie, and are basically trying to make up for the mistakes they made in the last lockout where the new CBA actually benefited the players somewhat.  The players are just trying to hold on to the little they did get after the last lockout, whilst making sensible suggestions as to how to be fair with the revenue sharing.”  Or…
  • “The players are greedy, it’s the owner’s who take all the risk by buying and operating the teams and yet they don’t even get a majority of the revenues created by the league.  The players should drop down to at least 50% and accept that they are employees earning massive amounts of money to play a game, or they can be easily replaced.  It’s disgraceful that they think they are entitled to so much.” Or…
  • “Both sides have good and bad things to say, but basically both are being stubborn as hell, refusing to accept what either side has to say and digging their heels in, and on the whole not realising how this affects the people that provide the revenue in the first place, the fans.  Get it done, and get playing.”

I’m in the middle pretty much (i.e. the bottom point), but my sympathies do tend to lie more with the players on this one.  What the NHL is asking is pretty ridiculous, and the NHL (from what I can see) are just trying to keep what they already have rather than ask for piles more money.  Don’t forget however, that the players don’t get any of the non-HRR revenues, whatever those may be, and I expect they add up to a considerable amount and should be remembered when talking about how much money the owners ultimately make each year.

The owners are trying to save themselves from themselves, as they are the ones signing players to these horrendously long and expensive contracts and yet complaining about such a thing when at the bargaining table.  The 7% drop the owners want may not sound a lot, yet each percentage point does actually amount to multi-millions worth of dollars, but ultimately I’d say get it down to 50/50 on the current definition of HRR and be done with it, move on to the other issues.  It’s inevitable anyway, whether it’s in this CBA or the next.

I plan on writing more about it soon (hey, I’ve probably got months to fill with the NHL gone!), but basically I consider professional athletes’ salaries to be somewhat justifiable.  Ridiculous in the context of the wider world, yes, but still justifiable within the realm of what they are.  Make no mistake, professional sportsmen are not just employees for a company or business.  They are also the product, the thing that people pay to go and see, buy the jerseys of, talk about around the water cooler the next day in work or in a bar, subscribe to TV channels to be able to watch them.  They are also ambassadors of their business, the human faces that people identify with and aspire to be, whilst being no doubt the best at what they do in the entire world.  I know that if it was the case that owners were pocketing most of the millions, and players were on no more than a couple of hundred thousand per year, then people would likely be calling that a pretty unfair deal considering the owners wouldn’t get any money from the team if the players weren’t there.

Can you imagine what would happen here in the UK if the FA locked out the Premier League?  There would probably be riots and attacks on the FA offices!  It’s unbelievable that an entire major professional sports league can completely shut itself down, but that’s what’s happened, and for the 3rd time in 18 years.  Let’s all hope and pray that this get’s sorted sooner rather than later, but I’m not holding my breath.  Some sources say the season will be lost, some are adamant it will just start late.  So, who knows, really.  I know a lot may disagree with my opinion and that’s fine, it’s just my opinion.  I see both sides of the argument, and all I’m really lamenting is the loss of some great hockey.  I’ll just have to find it elsewhere then.



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