Understand Before Dismissing (In Case You Shouldn’t Dismiss)

I’m always amused (and frustrated) when I see people dismiss something called “libertarianism” that is unrelated to libertarianism. Today’s example is Ryan Lambert’s Trending Topics at Puck Daddy on violence and player safety in the National Hockey League. (emphasis added)

The NHL has always been dangerous, and dangerously stupid in dealing with the issues related to player safety, and there’s a lot of reasons for it.

The first is that players would rather be “comfortable” than more safe, like if NASCAR drivers came out in opposition to roll bars because they slow the cars down. That’s why visors aren’t omnipresent in this league, and why they’ll never be mandated by the league until someone literally loses an eye on national TV (Staal was so close too!).

The percentage of players who wear visors is certainly up now from where it was even five years ago, but at some point you have to protect these dummies from themselves. This isn’t libertarianism. You can’t let the free market decide what constitutes a bad enough injury that it will scare NHLers into putting care ahead of comfort.

To the extent that it isn’t in cahoots with governments (e.g. subsidies, so every team ever), the NHL is a free market. It can decide to require visors for all players without needing to ignore or violate libertarian principles.

I’m a libertarian and I favor mandatory visor use in the league. Teams and players require lots of forced behavior from each other to agree to contracts. Here, players can be forced to wear visors as a condition of employment, just like a player can be restricted from engaging in certain recreational activities during the term of his (standard) contract with an NHL team. With visors, it can be valuing a player’s contribution to the team’s revenue stream without concern for his short- or long-term health. It could also be protecting players from themselves. Both fit within libertarianism.

Small-l libertarianism is about consent and force. Governments force individuals to behave – or not behave – in certain ways. Some of that can be legitimate. Much of what we have is not. This is none of that because it’s two private actors trying to reach mutually agreeable rules. The NHL can’t force a player to sign a contract he doesn’t like. (I’m ignoring antitrust issues like the draft because the point still stands.) It’s well within libertarianism for the NHL to require its players to wear visors while playing professional hockey for any of its teams.

The NHL Is Dumb. The Lockout Is Dumb.

As I wrote earlier in the week, I love hockey and the NHL. I want to watch games every minute of every day. I watch old games on NHL Network during the summer, even when I know the outcome. It’s a fantastic sport. I wish more people watched.

The NHL is currently working to guarantee fewer people watch. It’s engaged in a lockout of its players, its second lockout in eight years and third in eighteen. It was the second major professional sports league to cancel its championship, the first to do so as a result of its own actions¹. It’s the only professional sports league to cancel an entire season (i.e. 2004-2005), which didn’t even happen during World War II. This shameful fact is an indictment on the league’s negotiating skills and tactics. We’re again learning how putrid the league is at both. The former is probably defensible. The latter is not.

As we’d already lost the first two weeks of the 2012-2013 season, the NHL made a surprise proposal to the NHL Players Association on Tuesday. It offered an attempt to save the full 82 game schedule for all teams and what seemed to be an excellent start to resolve the core economic differences between the two sides. A few days have now passed. The league now says its offer was not its starting point, but its finish line. Its tactic is to require capitulation. Whether that happens now or in August 2013, the league provides no reason to believe it cares when. It appears quite ready to destroy another season if that means “winning”. Past evidence suggests that wouldn’t be fatal, or even significantly damaging. The past’s applicability to the future is open for debate here. The league appears indifferent to fatigued diehards and the growing-but-fragile fan support it’s gained in the last few years from a resurgence of big-market teams.

Reports indicate that the league recently received pressure from its major sponsors and television partners in Canada and the United States. This, to me, is the most interesting aspect of the continuation of the lockout. Obviously everyone wants a healthy business going forward. And the league’s sponsors want to be associated with a sport that is stable, exciting, and growing. They had a chance to continue getting that from the league until its proposal shifted from an opening offer to its final offer without announcement. The league is so determined to get its deal that it will accept an unnecessarily damaged, smaller revenue stream from its victory. This is idiotic. Its sponsors will attach their brands to a league that embraces upheaval, ruthlessness, and repeated disregard for its customers. We’ll find out how willing and committed they are to supporting that combination in the post-lockout NHL, whenever that arrives.

I doubt sponsors will feel the same level of enthusiasm they’ve shown in recent years if a deal can’t be reached by Thursday. That failure would likely mean a large chunk of the season being axed next Friday. (Missing the Thursday deadline would also mean the season will likely die.) The league is about to find out how much of its projections is hubris. As I wrote before, the diehards will be back whenever the league returns. That includes lifelong fans and more recent converts like me. The league is correct on that. I wonder how much revenue it expects from me if that happens. It will get my $170 or whatever it will charge for the Center Ice television package because I am out-of-market for the Blackhawks and I like watching other teams. But I bet the league thinks I will also still want t-shirts and jerseys and other branded merchandise. I will want them. I will not buy them. The League’s revenue will not be zero. But its revenue will not be what it was before. It will get the smaller revenue base it deserves. I am foolish. I am not a complete fool without any respect for myself.

The league takes the support of its fans for granted. It thinks we’re stupid. It’s told us for several years that the league is growing and experiencing record revenues. It said so earlier in this now-extended off-season. Yet, now it also demands immediate givebacks from the players because teams can’t survive without them. It wants us to ignore that more than half of the cumulative losses experienced by the weaker teams last season belonged to the Phoenix Coyotes, a team owned by the league itself. On average the teams losing money are losing just under $2 million each. (This is based on reported numbers. Possible accounting tricks are not considered for the validity of this loss.) If team owners can’t absorb a $2 million loss for a few years as the league transitions to a more stable economic structure, they shouldn’t be involved in this high risk, high dollar business. As a fan I want my team and the league to be healthy. I do not want to be treated as though my only involvement is to hand over my money as often as possible.

I’d resolved myself to the reality that this lockout would cost a significant chunk of the season. Then, the league worked to win back support by making an offer. I’m optimistic but I do not appreciate being used in what is now an obvious ruse to win an irrelevant PR war the NHL deserves to lose worse than it was losing it on Monday. I’m not interested in subjective notions of fairness. A 50/50 split is no more fair than a 57/43 or a 43/57 split. Context matters. Fairness here is negotiating honestly and striving to satisfy as many goals as possible. The owners want a 50/50 split. The players want their existing contracts honored. Great, there’s a deal to be made. But the fans are lost in this equation. We are customers, not equal participants in the product. We want hockey. There are many ways for the owners and players to get – or get close to – what they want. Fans have no involvement to get we want. We have only the power of the dollar after the fight is over, whenever that might be. It should be by Thursday. It probably won’t be. The clock is unforgiving against a battle of egos. If/when I lose, most of the dollars I’ve spent in the past will remain in my wallet.

In the end the owners will win this lockout. They have all the power. I don’t much care where they end up. I care a lot how – and when – they get there. They should start asking themselves what they’ll win if there is no deal by Thursday. They should ask this without first using their assumed answer to beg the question. Fifty percent of nothing is no better than fifty-seven percent of nothing. Without a deal that enables a full season, everyone loses.

¹ Major League Baseball lost its World Series in 1994 due to a players strike. Current NHLPA executive director Don Fehr was the players’ union chief at the time.

My NHL Lockout Theory

I’m a huge hockey fan. I dabbled in watching the game in the early ’90s. I’m a Chicago Blackhawks fan today because of Jeremy Roenick in 1990. However, in those pre-Internet days, I didn’t have sufficient access to either the rules or broadcasts to appreciate the game. My southern hometown didn’t get an ice rink until I was in college. I slowly faded away from the game. I regret that now.

Thankfully, in 2009, I discovered adult beer league hockey. I joined a team and finally grasped the rules and, more importantly, the beauty of the game. The strategy, the flow, even the simple sound of skates cutting through ice… All of it is amazing and fills me with joy. I can’t drop hockey again.

That history makes the current NHL lockout frustrating. I love NHL hockey. I watch every Blackhawks game, and a significant number of games beyond that on the Center Ice television package. The league is betting on the fact that I’ll return. And I will. There is no doubt on that. The league won’t lose me. Although I’ll likely buy less merchandise, if any, for a while to punish the league and the players, I’m not going to watch less.

At Backhand Shelf, Justin Bourne explores this in depth. I agree with it all. Here’s the gist:

Friedman never directly says it in the piece, but I think the implication is exactly what I’ve been trying to put into words for awhile now: Gary Bettman is overestimating hockey fans passion for the NHL (my words, not his). Something about the current mess made me tag this post with both “final straw” and “camel’s back.”

Bettman has seen the fans come back time and time again during his tenure, and is unwisely taking the fans for granted once more.

What he doesn’t realize, is that hockey fans love hockey, not the NHL. The love the Stanley Cup, but it doesn’t belong to the league. The love pond hockey, which is why the league’s heart-string twanging nostalgic playoff commercials are so widely beloved. There is no loyalty to some “shield,” the way Roger Goodell refers to the NFL. There’s hockey, and goddamn is it a terrific game.

Even if the league does get it figured out and only a half-season is missed, I’ll call it now: the fans aren’t coming running back this time (unless it happens like, soon-soon). There’s only so many times you can abuse someone before they snap. Some people have shorter fuses than others, and I’ve talked to people who’ve gone from anger to apathy this time, which as Elliotte implies, should be petrifying for the NHL.

Exactly. However, I disagree with the generally-accepted underlying theory that the NHL lockout is evidence that the league takes for granted that a floor exists where the league will always have certain fans and their money. I think it’s something worse. Despite record revenue growth and reason for optimism, the league believes it is near its ceiling. Instead of viewing this as greed, the stupidity of a second lockout in eight years makes sense if the league’s owners believe they are fighting for a larger piece of a revenue stream that has neared its maximum.

The most telling fact for my theory, I think, is the recent television deal with NBC Sports Network. It’s a ten-year deal. I can understand why the league would want stability. And they reached a new high in annual value for that deal, at $200 million per season. The deals for other leagues make that look like pocket change, but for the NHL, it’s progress. But if they believed that the league will continue to grow at approximately 7%, give or take minor currency fluctuations between the U.S. and Canadian dollars, why lock at that rate for a decade? And why lockout now when a missed season would merely tack on a free season in year 11 for NBC Sports Network? I’m certain the owners know that the free 11th year could instead bring them far more in present value than the $200 million they’ll get this year if they don’t play hockey. I think they don’t believe the NHL can grow enough to generate a significant jump in 2022. We’re near the maximum the sport can produce as a permanent niche for entertainment dollars.

Or I could be wrong and the NHL, Commissioner Gary Bettman, and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr are egotistical lunatics indifferently destroying the league for their own short-term need to win at all costs.

Just Wait Until Government Gets Involved

I’ve mentioned a few times in my Twitter feed that I started playing hockey this fall for the first time. I’ve played a handful of games already, sustaining some form of injury in more than half of them. It hasn’t deterred me because I’ve discovered a love for the game. Unfortunately, though, my latest injury may be something more than a nagging reflection of my out-of-shape 36-year-old body. I fell in my most recent game, landing awkwardly on my wrist and hand. It’s now stiff, swollen and a strange shade of orange. After a few days, I finally acknowledged that machismo isn’t the best way to deal with it. So, today I went to the doctor.

I had to answer biographical questions with no bearing on getting an x-ray. I had to provide a photo id to be scanned, allegedly to prevent insurance fraud, as required by federal law. My doctor had to give me a prescription for extra-strength Advil, which I declined, if I wanted to take one pill instead of several. I’m sure there were other laws being followed that did not add to my medical care. What will it be like when the government gets involved?

When I get the bill for my doctor’s consultation and the x-ray services, I will be responsible for 100% of it in my high deductible health insurance plan because I haven’t met my deductible. I find that acceptable because I intentionally signed up for my plan. The deductible matches the cumulative annual premium for my previous policy. What will happen to my preferred plan since it is unlikely to include what Congress decides I need because it doesn’t provide a full range of services included for “free”?

The key, though, is my ability to get the care I needed. I scheduled my appointment yesterday afternoon, saw my doctor this morning, and got x-rays taken on a walk-up outpatient basis immediately after that. I’ll know tomorrow whether I’ve fractured anything. I have no doubt that I’ll be able to quickly receive any additional treatment I may need. Our current medical system costs money, but that timeline is not free. Congress is too far removed from individuals to determine that the trade-off between those two is incorrectly balanced. I doubt it cares. The potential outcome concerns me.