The NHL Lockout and the Damage Done to the Fanbase

Kevin Jameson@@misterjamoCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05:  Following the NHL Board of Governors meeting, Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League heads uptown to address the media at the Westin Times Square on December 5, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Sports lockouts frustrate fans in such a fantastic way. Typically, it goes like this:

1) Talk of a lockout or strike begins during the season. Pensive fans try to ignore the possibility of a work stoppage. “They’ll get it together. I mean, how can’t they? There’s too much money at stake. They just gotta have a full season!”

2) The season ends, the owners and the players' association dig in and begin slinging mud. Fans, with no actual games to distract them, are forced to deal with the possibility of a work stoppage. “Buncha rich jerks. Do they know how lucky they are to be able to play sports/own sports teams for a living? What I wouldn’t give to be those guys! What a life.”

3) The expiration date of the current collective bargaining agreement arrives with no framework for a deal in place. That work stoppage which was so far in the future and unlikely just a few shorts months ago becomes a reality. “Well, it’s okay. They have some things to work out. Plus there are still a couple months until the season starts. No big deal. They’ll be out there in no time!”

4) The start date of the season comes and goes with no CBA. Weeks of fruitless negotiations leave all parties grumpy and disenfranchised. “Okay seriously, what’s wrong here? Millionaires bickering over millions while I work my lousy 9 to 5 just to hope to have a few shekels left over at the end of the week for a few pops? Get real.”

5) Owners and players begin issuing threats. Owners promise to axe the season if the players don’t capitulate and players threaten to disband if owners don’t acquiesce. Drop-dead dates are threatened. Heated discussions between the two parties dissolve, then suddenly recommence only to dissolve once more. Fans reach their boiling point. “That’s it, I’ve had it with the greed, the lies, the blame, the misdirection with the media. I don’t care when they come back, I’m done.

6) The deadline—the actual deadline—arrives and—lo!—both sides are able to agree on a deal that looks suspiciously like the deal any reasonable person could have expected. And just like that, “They’re back! Awesome! I knew they’d figure it out. Sure, they’re all a bunch of greedmongers who overcharge for jerseys and don’t care about the fans but . . . sports!”

As much as we may hate to admit it, this is us. In spite of ourselves we forget and, in the process, forgive. The first time your favorite greedy millionaire player scores a goal this season you’ll cheer as if nothing happened. As you should.

This infuriating work stoppage that deprived us of our most beloved diversion from daily life (for, what is watching sports and being a fan if not a way for us to forget about life for a few hours at a time) is already forgotten now that the two sides have agreed to get back on the ice. No matter how angry you might have been during this lockout you are already—not 36 hours after an agreement was reached—analyzing line combinations and considering possible salary cap issues.

Perhaps the fan above isn’t you. You may very well be more principled than myself. I wouldn’t look down upon you for deciding you want to take a stand and boycott the NHL. This is the NHL’s second work stoppage in the last ten years and it will go down as one of the most ridiculous and unproductive labor disputes in the history of sports. You have every right to take your time, money and energy and put it elsewhere. Not only would I not look down upon you, I’d commend you. I wish I had that kind of fortitude. Unfortunately, it won’t change anything about the way business is done in the NHL, and the bottom line is, watching the NHL is a lot more fun than being mad at it.

It’s hard to understand the depths of stupidity explored during this lockout. The demands of the owners, specifically, were outlandish. A 57 percent - 43 percent revenue split? Get real.

But this is the nature of negotiation. You start with terms that you know can never be accepted by the other party and try to give as little as possible. It is never in the interest of either side to sign on the line which is dotted until concessions are minimized and time runs out.

Both the NHL and the NHLPA were keenly aware of this. The risk of losing an appreciable amount of fans was minimal. The only way losing fans would have become a real concern is if the season had been cancelled and neither side was going to let that happen. The Penguins, for instance, lost 45 season-ticket holders as a result of the lockout yet have 9500 more on the waiting list. Maybe those 45 fans will never watch a game or buy merchandise again, but I doubt it, and even if they ignore hockey forever there will be no damage to the bottom line of the NHL.

This is not some deeply moral cause to be outraged about. This is sports. This is labor, and the nature of labor and unions is always going to be contentious. This is the way it has always been and always will be, and boycotting the league in hopes of enacting some kind of change is a waste of time. We’re smart enough to see that we got screwed by the NHL and the NHLPA for a few months, and we’re smart enough to know that this is the way business goes in sports these days. Fighting the power may be a noble cause but really, we just want to watch hockey.

And now we can.