Why is the N.H.L.'s lockout problem so much worse than any other league’s?

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Sarah Jaffe

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There will be a National Hockey League season this year.

As long as all the owners and the members of the players' union vote to ratify a deal reached Sunday, January 6, the season, cut short by four months due to a lockout of the players' union by the league's owners, will start soon, running 48 or possibly 50 games.

The players are taking a pay cut; their share as a whole of “hockey related revenue” will drop to a 50-50 split with the billionaire owners from the 57 percent that they negotiated in the last lockout. Their contracts will be shorter, the salary cap lower, but the cut is less than the owners originally demanded—they wanted the players to get only 46 percent of the revenue, a demand that set the tone for a nasty few months that saw the players consider decertifying their union, a maneuver used previously by the N.B.A. and N.F.L. players after their own leagues' lockouts.

Ryan Miller, goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres and one of the N.H.L.'s more outspoken players on labor issues, told the Globe and Mail in November that he was in favor of decertification:

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“It seems like the players in any league are going to be subjected to the same scripted labour dispute developed by [NHL and NBA law firm] Proskauer Rose in all collective bargaining discussions now and in the future. Decertification becomes part of the script because Gary Bettman and the owners are trying to get a sense of how far they can push us and at some point we have to say ‘enough.’

“They want to see if we will take a bad deal because we get desperate or if we have the strength to push back. Decertification is a push back and should show we want a negotiation and a fair deal on at least some of our terms.”

The players ultimately didn't go that route; if they had, it would have meant that individual players could file antitrust lawsuits against the league, as M.V.P. quarterbacks Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning did during the brief N.F.L. lockout. No N.F.L. games were lost, partly because a judge quickly ruled in favor of the players; the N.B.A. season was shortened to 66 games from 82.

The N.H.L. already lost over 630 games, well over 40 percent of its schedule, this year. This was the second time in less than ten years and the third since 1993 that this most marginal of the major sports lost at least part of its season to lockout.

IT'S NOT JUST HOCKEY: WE’RE LIVING THROUGH the era of the sports lockout, period.

The N.H.L. has lost more games to labor conflict than other professional sports, but work stoppages—and especially lockouts—are on the rise everywhere.

The N.F.L. referees got plenty of attention when they were locked out earlier this season by the league, in perhaps the most obvious demonstration of the imbalance of power present in such fights—Dave Zirin and Mike Elk described that lockout as having been “like using an Uzi on a field mouse.” But that one turned out relatively well for the employees, when the league's replacement refs turned out to be so conspicuously, and embarrassingly, unequal to the task. But even then, the owners ended up getting some concessions before bringing the refs back to work.

There have in fact been ten lockouts since 1990 and four in the past 16 months, and most of them have ended in victory, to one degree or another, for the owners.

As Zirin has noted, the lockouts have been part of a “conscious, industry-wide strategy.”

The law firm Ryan Miller mentioned above, Proskauer Rose, has been involved in each of the recent pro-sports conflicts, and led negotiations for the N.H.L. owners in the last lockout, whereby a whole season was wiped out and the players signed a deal that gave the owners much of what they were demanding.

It's not just pro sports workers that have been locked out with increasing frequency in recent years. While strikes—worker-driven work stoppages, like the one led by Chicago's teachers union earlier this year—have fallen dramatically, lockouts now make up a record percentage of all labor conflicts.

It just so happens that the sports-league lockouts are among the most conspicuous and, in a way, the most telling about how effective the tactic has been for business owners who employ it. If the owners can break unions that represent Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, marquee players with high media profiles and massive fan followings, after all, what do you think happens to ordinary people?

BUT WHY IS IT THAT THE LABOR SITUATION IN THE N.H.L. SEEMS SO MUCH WORSE than in any of the other leagues?

A full 10 percent of games under Gary Bettman have been canceled—more than three times as many games a have been canceled in any other league, under any other sports commissioner.

Bettman came in in 1993 as commissioner, leaving his position at the N.B.A., charged with expanding the league's profile, which he has done, and ending labor conflict, which he very obviously hasn't. One of the major problems seems to be that each solution Bettman comes up with leads to another, larger problem.

After the 1994-1995 lockout, which didn't get the owners the salary cap they wanted though it did result in plenty of other player concessions, Bettman focused on expanding the league, putting teams in Atlanta, Columbus and Nashville and overseeing the transformations of the Minnesota North Stars into the Dallas stars, the Quebec Nordiques into the Colorado Avalanche, the Winnipeg Jets into the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Hartford Whalers into the Carolina Hurricanes.

While the league's profile did go up as the sport landed in places with little naturally occurring ice, many of those teams are also the ones that are now struggling even as the league as a whole is profitable. The Coyotes in particular failed to make money, declared bankruptcy, and are now being run by the league.

As James Mirtle at the Globe and Mail explained, “(a) the bottom 10 teams have revenues so low they can’t cover their expenses and (b) those at the top have little intention of helping them do so more than they already are.”

So big-team owners like the Boston Bruins' Jeremy Jacobs--a regular lockout hard-liner among the owners--are making money, but don't want to share it. (Jacobs in particular used to be known for his unwillingness to spend, though that's changed in recent years, when he's spent up to the salary cap that he pushed so hard for in the 2004-2005 lockout.) Meanwhile, the owners who aren't making money aren't in a tenable business situation, putting at risk Bettman's entire expansion scheme if nothing is done to appease them.

So Bettman's choice, short of chalking the whole growth thing up as a mistake and an impossibility, has been between forcing the owners of successful franchises to share their profits and cutting expenses by wringing ever more concessions from the players.

He's obviously found it easier to push for the concessions, even after the owners got nearly everything they wanted in the last round—a salary cap, 24 percent rollbacks in existing player contracts, and a guarantee of 57 percent of hockey-related revenue from the league for the players, which was down from some 74 percent they'd received the previous year.

The N.H.L. has suffered for its lockouts. It took years to rebuild after the lost season of 2004-2005. While the N.F.L. referees lockout put the consequences on display for everyone to see, hockey just sort of goes away when there's a lockout. The core fans miss it, sure, and the others—the one the league needs to stick around if it ever hopes to solidify its place alongside the truly major ones—shrug and turn to basketball instead.

“Our fans and sponsors are alienated, and this is hurting the game," Ryan Miller said. "This process has more of the appearance of brand suicide than a negotiation.”

It will be damage-control time now, as the players return to the ice, some of them from overseas where they've been playing since the lockout, and the owners return to trying to make money. They were willing to sacrifice more than $550 million in revenue to win the latest concessions from their players, and if fans are willing to come back, they'll profit from the move.

But that's a big if. Each time the league loses games to a lockout, there are potential and current fans who don't return, kids who decide to take up a different sport, sponsors who decide that maybe hockey is a bad bet. This deal guarantees at least eight years of labor peace, and it's likely there will be a different commissioner when it expires. But at what price have the owners bought this latest round of concessions?