With NHL CBA talks about to begin between the NHL and the NHLPA, new union head Don Fehr has already proven to have more PR moxy than former head Bon Goodenow. Millionaire players rarely have the public on their side in these types of negotiations. Its one of the few times where the much wealthier owners actually have the fans on their side. Players often come across as petulant, greedy and out of touch with the average wage earning fan. That is a PR hurdle the NHLPA in its modern incarnation has never been able to scale.
New boss Don Fehr has already started laying some very subtle PR land mines for the owners to step on. Rejecting the leagues plan to restructure the divisions and revamp the schedule. The NHLPA claims it wasn’t properly consulted. Odd since the former union boss Paul Kelly said publicly that the plan the league came out with was almost exactly the plan the players wanted and asked the league for during his tenure.
Fehr claiming the league could easily start on time without a new CBA but simply operate under the old system until a new deal is reached thus guaranteeing fans their hockey fix. Smart play since if a lockout did occur in October the NHLPA could claim the owners are the villains who shutdown the game and not the benevolent players who offered to endure under the old system which pays them 57% of league revenues. The projected floor for the cap this coming season is 54.2 million. As many as 10 teams will lose millions just getting to the floor of the cap.
Fehr is very smart to have over 30 active players on the negotiating team. That will go a long way in alleviating player fears of the past, that a small pack of insiders within their group controlled everyone’s fate while having their own personal and secret agendas. Players are wise of to be skeptical of their own leaders since the NHLPA is 100% perfect in having both corruption and/or controversy at the top. Since the onset of the NHLPA, every single executive director has departed amid controversy. Some went to jail, some dismissed for contravention of internal bylaws and procedures and others simply because there was a rift amongst members because of the actions of the executive director.
In this CBA negotiation the players have some great points. They made major concessions in the last CBA and the owners inability to control themselves has again put many franchises in financial trouble. The lack of true revenue sharing means that despite a business model which has seen revenues grow from roughly 2.1 billion seven years ago, to the estimated 3.3 billion per year now, we still see too many franchises in financial trouble. The players can rightly point out that revenue generation is not the problem but rather the leagues wealthier teams unwilling to truly share the profits with the weaker teams.
What does not work in the players favor is comparables. In arbitration, free agency and almost every facet of NHL life, comparables are used to decide everything. Yet players will try to deny they compare to football or basketball. Players in both those sports receive roughly 50% of the leagues revenues in sports which generate far higher total revenues than the NHL does. It is still difficult to convince any working person that an employee deserves to make more than his employer who has to take all the risks and provide the entire infrastructure for the athletes to perform their magic.
What has been proven true in almost every sports labor dispute in the last 25 years will ultimately occur here too. The only question is how much will the players lose and the fans suffer to get to that reality. In the NHL up to half of the teams owners will lose less if there are no games than they would if there are games. Until the owners are facing true financial hardship across the board, why would they stop until they get the deal they want?
Sadly my guess is there will be another NHL lockout in October and my guess is the player (just like last time) will end up agreeing to something extremely close to what they were offered at the beginning of the process. We will again all be left wondering why the game had to stop and the players will be left wondering how they will ever recoup the money and (for some) the careers they lost.
See you at the rink.