NHL's Greed Launches Another Lockout

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst ISeptember 15, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13:  Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League leaves the podium after addressing the media at Crowne Plaza Times Square on September 13, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It has been the nature of labor relations in professional sports that the team owners are basically filthy rich fans with the emotional stability of Sybil and the fiscal restraint of a teenager.

The cycle runs something like this, from the owners’ perspective: 1) buy team; 2) spend like mad; 3) help get the league into a financial mess; 4) ask the players to bail us out.

The above corollary applies to any team sport. In baseball, from the days of handlebar mustaches in the late 19th century to the mid-1970s, owners held servitude over the players via the Reserve Clause. The ballparks may as well have been plantations.

The tyrannical rule baseball owners had over the hired help ended in 1974, when an arbiter’s ruling ushered in free agency. That’s when the owners turned from autocrats to unruly kids in a candy store, grabbing players off the shelves and gleefully spending.

Pretty much every labor dispute in pro sports can be traced to the owners’ inability to control themselves.

Yet it’s a hard sell to portray the players as sympathetic figures whenever words like “strike” and “lockout” start to get bandied about. They are, after all, the beneficiaries of the owners’ lack of self-control—and huge salaries.

The National Hockey League says its owners are spending too much. That’s nothing new in pro sports. The owners always spend too much. The league is asking the players for revenue concessions. That’s nothing new, either.

This is becoming a familiar refrain.

2004 was eight years ago but it feels like yesterday. That was when the NHL said its owners were spending too much—and that it needed revenue concessions from the players.

The league lost the entire 2004-05 season to the lockout, and when the snow settled, the players had agreed to a salary cap for the first time ever, and they absorbed what was tantamount to a 24 percent, across-the-board salary cut. It was a face wash of the extreme kind.

The NHL re-opened in October 2005 with the words THANK YOU, FANS spray-painted on the ice in every rink in the league.

I wonder what they’ll paint on the ice next time. How about, THERE’S A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE?

At 11:59 p.m. Saturday night, barring a last-second goal, there will be a slight variation to the hockey fan’s cry.

“Lockout on!”

September 15 is the deadline for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). If one isn’t reached, Commissioner Gary Bettman says he has given the green light for the owners to lock the players out. Again.

Without the players, who are the talent, pro sports owners wouldn’t have a product. The owners would have to go back to their board rooms and corporate life, which is no less competitive, but who will pay $40 a head to watch a shareholders meeting?


The players make lots of money, yes, but only a fraction of what they’ve made for the owners and the league itself. All those ZETTERBERG and HOWARD and (still) YZERMAN jerseys you see being worn by fans at Joe Louis Arena? Those are “cha-chings” for the league. Every jersey sold with a player’s name sewn on the back equals more money into the NHL’s coffers.

The NHL scored a big win over the players during the 2004-05 lockout. Union solidarity cracked and crumbled like a cookie.

So when the CBA entered its expiring year in 2012, the league was like a skewed version of a Dickens story.

“Please, sirs, may we have another?”

Concession, that is.

Bettman and his 30 owner/lieutenants wanted to reduce the players’ cut of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent to 43 percent. That’s a slash of nearly 25 percent—a real BC two-hander.

There hasn’t been this much greed since Gordon Gecko.

Annual industry revenue, since the lockout of ’04-05, has increased from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion. That’s nearly 60 percent. Yet it’s not enough for the suits. In addition to its revenue increase, the league also wanted the proletariat to decrease their take by a quarter.


But there are signs that this time, the NHL might be picking on the wrong union.

The speaker is Red Wings superstar Henrik Zetterberg, talking to the Detroit Free Press in Friday’s edition.

“I think we did enough last time, in '04. Basically, we gave (the league) everything they wanted, and one of the reasons we did that was that we didn't want to be in this situation again, and here we are again,” Zetterberg said. But then he finished his check.

"It's the third lockout in I don't know how many years now. Ever since Bettman came into the league offices, that's been his way to handle the stuff. That's not a fun thing, but that's how he approached this. We've been ready. We're ready to have a fight here."

Zetterberg also said that the players union, under the leadership of veteran sports collective bargaining negotiator Donald Fehr, has been kept fully in the loop, daily, of any developments. That, Zetterberg said, has led to more solidarity—way more than what was present in 2004.

The NHL has come down from its initial demand of a 25 percent revenue cut for the players, but not by a whole lot. The current offer stands at a decrease from 57 to 46 percent—which is still about 20 percent in reduction.

For those holding out hope that somehow the paradigm will change and the owners will back off from their hard line and get the players back onto the ice in time for the scheduled beginning of the regular season, the news isn’t good.


Here’s Bettman:

“The thought was somehow (the players) got slammed in the negotiations last time. They didn’t. We made at the time what we thought was a fair deal. It actually turned out to be more fair than it should have been.”

Unless you were an NHL player.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, when baseball owners ruled the serfs, women have been given the right to vote and a Civil Rights Bill was passed.

Bettman’s odd comments, made during a period of increasing revenue for the NHL, suggest that pro sports still need to catch up, while simultaneously being determined to go back in time.

You can read more Greg Eno at www.GregEno.com !!


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