If Gary Bettman were a hostage negotiator, everyone would have been dead for days.
Bettman needs some time away from the negotiating table, suggesting to the NHL Players Association that both sides take a two-week break from discussions in an effort to rethink their positions on the ongoing NHL lockout.
There are a billion reasons why this negotiating tactic is ridiculous, and it's the next gaffe in a line of impossible-to-conceive public relations nightmares through which Bettman has run these discussions.
The man has been through this before, less than a decade ago, but it seems as if he's never handled a negotiation in his life. You don’t get to take two-week breaks while the body count of missed regular-season games piles into the hundreds. You can't just step away from the table for two weeks because the other side won't agree to your terms.
Step away for two days, maybe, but not two weeks. Thanksgiving is coming, so it makes sense Bettman would suggest the league and union plan a break on Wednesday to table discussions in an effort to enjoy the holiday weekend with their families. Maybe a little turkey and football—you know, the sport that got its labor dispute settled last year before missing any regular-season games—will give those involved in the NHL negotiations some much-needed perspective.
Stopping for two weeks is asinine. It really doesn't matter which side you are on in the labor dispute, Bettman has destroyed his own (and the owners') public sentiment by suggesting this break. Now, the owners have allowed the union to offer quotes like this, from an email via NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly to the Associated Press (h/t Sporting News):
Gary suggested the possibility of a two-week moratorium. I'm disappointed because we don't have a negotiating partner that has any genuine interest in reaching an agreement. Zero interest.
How will fans react to that? Is there any kind of spin Bettman and the NHL brass can give to the assertion they have "zero interest" in negotiating.
Special council to the NHLPA Steve Fehr piggy-backed on Daly's claims as well (via Edmonton Journal):
We believe that it is more likely that we will make progress if we meet than if we don't. So we are ready to meet. If indeed they do not want to meet, it will be at least the third time in the last three months that they have shut down the dialogue, saying they will not meet unless the players meet their preconditions.
What does that tell you about their interest in resolving this?
To the layperson, it tells me the NHL wants the season to be washed out. They've already lost the Winter Classic—the only big-ticket event on the annual calendar outside of the Stanley Cup Final.
There's a case to be made that the NHL could still salvage a truncated season like the NBA did last year, putting more games in a small window of time to create a nightly buzz that would get fans even more excited for the product leading into the playoffs.
There are, however, two problems with that model. First, the NHL isn't like the NBA in terms of star power and TV reach. It's a lot harder for the NHL to get any casual American sports fans to care about the sport, especially when they've gone through two pronounced work stoppages in eight years and don't have nearly the television backbone the NBA has with Turner and ESPN.
Second, the clock is ticking on how long the negotiations can last to even logistically salvage a season at all. The NBA started playing games on Christmas Day last year. With a two-week break being recommended by the NHL offices, the two sides wouldn't even resume negotiations until around December 1, making the start of a season all but impossible before the end of the year.
At what point will the league just cut its losses on this season and start negotiating for next year?
Maybe that is part of Bettman's plan. Maybe the delay in talks is a way to push any deal into the new year, thereby giving the league a fair and reasonable justification to scrap this season entirely. It has been widely suggested that some owners would prefer losing this season, especially once the Winter Classic was lost. Delaying negotiations is the easiest way to get that done, because if they aren't meeting, they aren't agreeing to anything.
Therein lies the real problem. If Bettman's job is to play mouthpiece for the owners, it's in his best interest to listen to his constituents, not his fans. Both the owners and players are worried about their piece of the pie, seemingly unaware of—or unconcerned at—the fact that the longer negotiations take, the fewer fans will be left to fill up the plate.
It happened before. Heck, I was an avid hockey fan before the last work stoppage wiped out an entire season. Going a winter without the sport allowed me to find other things to fill that time and other sports to care more about.
When the league came back, I didn't. I went from a diehard fan to a casual observer, following the occasional box score and catching a game when nothing else was on. I would care about the playoffs, sure, but the sport dropped off the radar for a year and had to go to the back of the line when they returned.
Now, I don't see any reason to put them in line at all. Sure, diehard fans will come back, and I'm sure some "I love all my local teams" fans who don't care about this labor nonsense will go back to watching games here and there. But losing another full season—missing two campaigns in a span of eight years—could destroy any casual fan's interest in the game at all. A league really cannot survive without the casual fans. That's why they are in this mess in the first place.
That being said, the owners and Bettman don't even seem to care.
Again, I'm not saying the owners are wrong in their demands. Rather, I'm merely questioning their tactics. Taking a break is the worst suggestion in the world right now. The NHL should have a live-streaming web cam of Bettman and the other negotiators sitting at a boardroom table (with the sound off, fine) until a deal gets done. No bathroom breaks, no sleep, nothing until a deal is signed.
The league needs to show the fans it actually cares about its brand, its sport and those who spend their hard-earned money to fund it.
The players and owners wouldn't have anything to fight about if the fans all stopped showing up. The way this negotiation is being handled, it's amazing anyone still wants to.