Monday, October 04, 2004

Hockey labor pains

My two favorite sports are football and hockey. So much to my dismay I am forced to watch yet another blood feud play out in a sport I’ve loved since childhood…hockey. The same sort of war cost me another of my favorite sports. After the powers that be in baseball stopped the season in 1994, the only such work stoppage in MLB history that was not the result of a world war, I vowed never to follow baseball with any passion ever again. Little did I know that another sporting version of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s would be relived in the NHL. At this point the NHLPA and the owners are miles apart on any collective bargaining agreement and there is the very real danger that there will be no hockey for 2004-05. The league ceased operations on September 14 and when interviewed recently the Colorado Avalanche’s Joe Sakic said the best case scenario would be that the NHL would resume play in January, 2005. Both sides are adopting a siege mentality and digging in for what promises to be a long and ugly fight.

The NHL commissioned a study to determine the extent of the financial plight that was facing its teams. Former Securities Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt was brought in to examine the books of the NHL’s 30 franchises. What he found was alarming. Of the 30 teams, 19 lost a total of $272 million; an average of $18 million per team, last year and that of the 11 teams that turned a profit, the average net gain was $6.4 million. According to the report 75% of the operating cost of NHL franchises is player salaries, by far the highest ratio in professional sports. The study claims that the NHL sustained losses of $273 million on nearly $2 BILLION in gross revenue. Levitt’s study lasted ten months and was submitted to the NHL February 7, 2004.

There are roughly 700 players employed by the NHL worldwide. In 2003-04 the average NHL salary was $1.8 million. Most careers are over by the time players turn 30 and many make under $1 million a year and between the 02-03 and 03-04 seasons player salaries rose by only 2.5 percent.

The NHL owners have said repeatedly that they will accept no proposal that does not include a salary cap and the NHLPA is steadfast in its refusal of any such plan. So far the owners have proposed a $40 million cap and the players have roundly dismissed any such talk. The NHLPA has proposed a five percent salary cut coupled with a luxury tax system similar to MLB’s salary structure. In addition the players’ union has floated a revenue sharing program as part of its plan. The NHLPA has stated that it will never accept a hard salary cap. The owners want to reel in escalating salaries.

What is clear is that the two sides hate each other and at present there is no end in sight. The players have contended for years that the owners have artificially held salaries down below market value throughout the history of the NHL. The owners have been accused of underpaying players and reaping exorbitant profits at the expense of the faces of the game. Players have been portrayed as greedy and disloyal to their respective teams and to hockey. Elite players such as Jaromir Jagir and Peter Forseberg make in upwards of $10 million per year while many rank & file players make $500 thousand or less, one of the largest disparities in sports. Owners have steadfastly asserted that player greed has driven up salaries at an unprecedented rate. Conversely, NHLer’s have said that the owners created the current marketplace and they themselves are not responsible for escalating salaries. The New York Rangers regularly have payrolls at or near the tops in hockey. Since the 98-99 season the Rangers have been either first or second in team salary every year but haven’t made the playoffs since 97. At this point the Rangers are one of the most poorly run franchises in professional sports. The players say they are not responsible for the pitfalls of misguided and incompetent owners.

So which side needs to give? Simple…both sides need to bite the bullet and get a CBA done. Has the NHL learned nothing from the disastrous implosion of Major League Baseball in 1994? It has taken ten years, a twice shattered single-season homerun record, Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak, and several magical post seasons for baseball to return to the level of popularity it had pre-94. The NHL needs to look to other sports for guidance as well. Back in the 1980’s the NFL went through labor pains and nearly shut down. Fortunately management and the players were able to set aside their differences and come to a meeting of the minds. Throughout the mid-late 80’s and early 90’s the NFL implemented a hard salary cap, revenue sharing, a strict drug policy, the best pension plan in sports, and expanded in size. Today the NFL is arguably the strongest professional sports league in the world. The NBA went through its own struggles fairly recently but was able to rise above and flourish. If the NHL does not learn from experience or example we will not see professional hockey in this country for quite some time. If the season is lost hockey will NEVER rise in popularity above cult status in this country. Come on gentlemen, put your differences aside and do what’s best for the sport. Do what’s best for the fans.

Watching the two sides in the hockey impasse is like watching two playground bullies fight over the same ball. So what should the fans do? Simple, you do what any one would do with an obstinate child, you punish them. If the season is lost and we fans embrace hockey again we should all be hit upside the head with a frozen turnip. If the one of the most exciting leagues in sports shuts down for a year the fans should boycott en masse and teach these people a lesson. The Bible says, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. We the fans should discipline the dysfunctional child known as the NHL. Don’t spare the rod. Do what parents should do. Let’s send them to bed without any supper.