NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman helped get ownership just about everything it wanted in a new CBA in 2004. Eight years after the lost 2004-05 season, ownership wants more.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning sent out a press release a few days ago about preseason tickets for a game in Orlando, I balked at the idea of promoting the news. Oh, that's not a protest of the Lightning marketing a game, or a protest of Amway Center hosting hockey. It's all over the uncertainty of the moment, brought along by ongoing labor negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA.
Everything is on hold. Most everything has gone quiet.
In the stillness of the moment, the grand malice is stalking prey once again - the need for money, the need for more money, the need for satisfaction.
Money isn't really the issue, though it's the primary discussion point in the 2012 labor negotiation between the National Hockey League and National Hockey League Players Association. We can get lost in rhetoric about finances and revenues, zombie franchises that are siphoning the financial strength of the league, outlandish contracts, and players-as-the-product. The issue is money, but it's not. The issue is financial, but it's not.
The issue is control. The centerpiece of this labor negotiation is domination.
We've been here before. We've seen it before. We've heard it before. 2004-05; the season that went to hell because of the nefariousness of an ill-kempt negotiation between the league and the players. I'm one of the few remaining hockey bloggers who were around and chronicling the dark days of the 2004 NHL lockout. And while I could reference any number of stories I wrote about the labor strife, let me reference what I wrote on opening night, 2005 after it was all said and done:
To summarize, the 2004-05 National Hockey League season was killed by any and all of the following words in no particular order: stubbornness, thoughtlessness, greed, tactlessness, cluelessness, incompetence, greed, grubbing, strife, anarchy, deranged thoughts, heartlessness, out-of-touchness, stupidity, greed, discombobulations, bickering, cruelty, squabbling, disinformation, lying, brown-nosing, groveling, friction, disunity, disloyalty, havoc, idiocy, gluttony, selfishness, distortions, incompatibility, partisan politics of a business variety, hate, small minds, big pockets, money grubbing and greed.
Did I say greed? Did I say it enough?
OK, now you have all these words that played out in various forms over months and months on end - any one of those words can be used to describe any number of people or situations that have passed over a year time span and basically helped screw the fans. Every fan.
Both sides were guilty. Both sides were to blame. Ownership was steadfast and sinister while the NHLPA was belligerent and incompetent. It was so easy to sympathize with ownership and believe some of the rhetoric coming from the league itself (and it's mouthpieces in the media)... On top of that, as a small-market fan who has seen how well small markets can do in other sports with thanks to the salary cap (the central issue in the 2004 work stoppage), it seemed like a non-issue that was mortifying the players union.
The Players Association helped the owners cause with some tactics such as rejecting ownership offers outright and rarely making counter proposals, as well as its members being kept at arm's length about negotiations. The union at large, it appeared, was expected to trust and put faith entirely into their respective player representatives without seeing facts and figures for themselves. This led to both canned lines being repeated among the players, and the appearance of a larger ignorance about what was going on. The fact players were escaping the situations entirely and playing in Europe didn't help things either.
With a lack of urgency and an uninvolved Players Association, what happened? Talks, actual negotiations, didn't get underway in earnest until winter 2005. Time ran out. The season was cancelled. The NHLPA conceded pretty much everything that ownership wanted, and the world moved on.
Now, after getting everything it wanted when the now-expiring CBA was ratified 7 years ago, the owners want to keep the players in their place. That's how it looks from rhetoric leading up to, and the actual first offer from the league to the players.
Financial troubles are still being crowed about from owners. Improving league finances are a must because franchises remain in questionable financial status.
While it's hard to pick any sides in a confrontation between billionaires and millionaires, I find it almost impossible to side with the league this time around. "Cost certainty" was supposed to cure all ills, revenue sharing and its complex and inconsistent formula, was supposed to aid those struggling teams. Ticket prices were supposed to go down as revenues increased for each of the 30 league franchises. Ownership was supposed to be able to afford being friendlier to the fans, just as long as the players were friendlier to the bottom-line of their respective teams.
Seven years after ratification, I call bullshit.
The NHL Players Association should not have to make grandiose concessions to ownership to keep the league solvent. There's a top-down issue at play here that's been a festering sore of a problem for a while - management of the league product and management of its finances - that comes by way of ownership and the league offices in New York and Toronto. There are consistency issues, arcane regulations, and overly-complex systems that complicate business. Not to mention half-hearted vetting of potential team owners (which often comes back to bite the league).
Instead of doing the internal work to rectify the situation (reforms of the business that focuses on management and ownership in the league, bringing business administration into the 21st century), the Board of Governors seeks to make sure the Players Association - the immediate cause and solution of league revenue issues - complies to its whims.
To "fix" revenues, the league doesn't just want a larger piece of the revenue pie but also wishes to restrict the players - handcuffing them through contractual limitations such as entry-level contract length (five years instead of three), unrestricted free agency (after 10 years), and limiting bargaining rights (the elimination of arbitration) among other things.
Hypocritically at best, owners such as Craig Leipold and Ed Snider are pushing hard for player concessions, crying about outlandish contracts and revenue issues. All the while, Leipold and Snider are the ones willingly signing off on gargantuan contracts this off-season. Ownership's lack of control and hyper-competitiveness is more of a problem on this issue than the players themselves (the majority of which aren't going to be tendered outlandish contracts to begin with).
The owners' initial offer solves nothing of ills created by porous management on their own end while pushing for further submission from the union.
Owners have the upper hand by controlling the purse-strings of the league. If total domination of the Players Association is what they are after without regard to internal business matters, then it can be concluded that ownership will not be satisfied until they've run the business into the ground. The relationship between ownership and labor should be a partnership. Working in coordination with each other, not in spite of, is the ideal for the sake of increased profits all around.