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.