Why the players needed to stretch it out until now

The NHL lockout was settled in the wee hours of this morning with a tentative agreement to be ratified by the players and the owners. Watching my social media accounts this morning, I see some jubilation, more apathy, and a lot of rancor.

Most of those who express dismay don’t appear to be as upset about the missed games as they are about the lack of respect shown the fans by the league and the players. My cousin, a knowledgeable hockey fan and former sports blogger, believes we’ve been shown contempt. I definitely feel the lack of respect, though I think contempt is a bit strong. But I can certain understand where he’s coming from.

If this lockout had been settled in October or even in November, I don’t think the fans would have been nearly so upset. Thus, I think it’s fair to say that a big part of the problem is how long it’s taken to resolve this dispute. So why did it have to take so long? Here are my thoughts…

From the perspective of the league, it’s clear that they made some substantial errors in how the last CBA was designed. No-one could have predicted the rise in the Canadian dollar and other factors which would lead to the salary cap nearly doubling during the 7-year term of the CBA. In order to ensure competitive balance among teams, they insisted on a $16M gap between the cap and the floor, which means that the floor has risen with the cap – from $24M in 2005 to $54M in 2012-13 (prorated). This isn’t sustainable for the smaller-market teams, and thus the owners felt they need to make a big push to fix it.

Trouble is, this kind of system will never work without meaningful revenue sharing, something the players pointed out last summer. Unfortunately big-market owners are never going to send substantially more money to smaller teams, thus the league felt it necessary to push the cap, and associated revenue split, down as far as they could go.

The players, on the other hand, saw that an immediate change from a $70M cap to a $60M cap, and from 57% revenue split to 50%, would cause big problems in player movement. If a dozen or more teams are over the cap already, this substantially reduces the number of teams who can compete for a player’s services. The players pushed hard at the end for interim measures that would allow for transition.They also pushed hard early on for transition payments to ease the move from 57% to 50% – they succeeded in getting $300M of “make whole” money to ease the inevitable increases in escrow percentages that we’ll see over the next couple of years. Overall, I think the players did a good job of getting the things they needed in order to soften the blow of drop in revenue split.

The problem is that in order for the players to get these concessions, they had to outwait an NHL negotiating team that had no interest in negotiating. It was clear from the start that the league wanted what they wanted, and they weren’t going to accept anything less. The only way to get them off their position was to push them to the point of discomfort with the prospect of a 2012-2013 season disappearing entirely. The players rightfully believed that the profitable teams would not allow Gary Bettman to cancel the season entirely, and that the best possible deal would come in the hours and days just prior to that cancellation. In essence, the players called Bettman’s bluff, and they were right.

It’s clear that the NHL has come to believe that the first course of action on the expiration of a CBA should be to lock out the players and shoot for the moon, assuming that the players will crack sooner or later. Unfortunately for them, the players made a smart move in hiring Donald Fehr out of retirement to whip them into shape. He knew from the start that the best deal would come come at the last possible minute. He also knew that the players simply can’t keep giving back substantial concessions every time the CBA expires. Did you ever wonder why the players were pushing for a 7-year CBA rather than a 10-year deal? Here are Elliotte Friedman’s reports on that:

Couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a former player. He said he’d heard the NHLPA wanted a short-term CBA because the union was worried a 10-year term would allow everyone to forget this disgraceful work stoppage.

The next day, I ran into two active players who believed the same thing. “People will forget,” they said. “And it will give the owners licence to do the same thing in 10 years.”

Whether you think that’s accurate or not, I think you can bet that the league will think twice next time before assuming that a lockout will result in major concessions.

There’s no wrong answer when it comes to your reaction as a fan to this whole disgraceful mess. I personally feel that the league was careless with its fan base and should expect a fair bit of fan blowback, at least for the remainder of this so-called season. I also think that the players were thinking ahead to the next CBA negotiation, looking out for their own but also your interests in trying to avoid another lengthy lockout. They saw the writing on the wall and gambled that some short-term pain would teach the league a lesson, while allowing them to get their best-possible deal this time around. I’m disappointed in the league, but I can’t blame the players. In the end, I’ll be watching my Canucks this year, but it’s going to be a while before I spend any real money on NHL hockey. After the last lockout, I cancelled my season tickets, and I’m more weary this time than I was then. But if the Canucks took a long run, well…..

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