We all know the old saying “that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. For the National Hockey League, this saying seems to be the case as the deadline of September 15 approaches.
Last Friday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the media by saying, “what I thought was starting as a promising week after we made our substantial counterproposal on Tuesday ends, I guess you can say, in disappointment.” And after that announcement the NHL and NHLPA recessed in their talks for a new collective bargaining agreement and no further talks are planned.
This lack of a resolution is something familiar to hockey fans because during the 2004-05 season the NHL and NHLPA could not agree on a new collective bargaining agreement and the NHL locked out the players for the entire season. However, the commissioner believes that comparing the work stoppage that wiped out the 2004 season to the current labor negotiations is effectively pointless. The 2004-05 lockout may be history, but the inability of the owners and players to resolve their present issues which may result in a lockout will still have the same results for the fans.
But despite Mr. Bettman’s claim, the language being used up to and during these two negotiation periods appear to have the same theme. While the issues the NHL and NHLPA are discussing are different, although both financial in nature, the end result could be déjà-vu all over again.
Comments made close to the All-Star Break
Gary Bettman to reporters on Feb. 7, 2004 in St. Paul, Minnesota:
“Just over seven months remain before the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. That is plenty of time for a successful negotiation and I am hopeful that we can achieve one without disruption.
“We understand each other but the fact of the matter is, until the union is willing to acknowledge and address economic problems we’re having, the ones that most of you chronicle on a regular basis, the ones that our fans talk to us about, and the negotiations are not going to progress.”
Gary Bettman to reporters on January 19, 2012:
“My guess is, at some point, we’ll probably sit down – assuming the union’s comfortable doing that. There’s a pretty steep learning curve in terms of the business and the union’s standpoint [of] what the players are focused on, and we’ve been respectful of that process. Whenever they’re ready, we’re ready. We’ve been ready.”
Here we get the reiteration from the commissioner that there is still time to get a deal done without losing any games. But, back in 2004, he stressed the fact that the Union drew a line in the sand on what the NHL called the key issues. Understandably the system was broken and economic times were different, but it seems that every time Collective Bargaining comes up the system is broken.
On the eve of the Stanley Cup Final:
May 25, 2004, in Tampa, Florida:
“These negotiations are not just about next season. It is next season and all the ones that will follow. It’s about the future of our game. We are not prepared to operate this way anymore. It does not matter how we got here. I don’t blame the union or the players. We are where we are.”
June 1, 2011, in Vancouver, British Columbia:
“We continue to develop a relationship with the Players’ Association with Donald Fehr, who is here today. The good news, from my standpoint, is that it’s too early to focus on Collective Bargaining, particularly since the other sports leagues have to go first.”
“We have a system that is dramatically improved from where we were in teams’ ability to compete. You’ve seen it in our competitive balance. There has been dramatic improvement. Whether or not the Players’ Association or we are going to be looking for adjustments is something we’ll look at quietly and hopefully resolve quietly.”
May 30, 2012 in New Jersey:
Subject: Speculation about a lockout next year, probably not the whole season, but is there any reason to believe that a deal can be done in time:
“I don’t understand the speculation and the degree of negativity that it connotes considering we, meaning the league and the Players’ Association, have yet to have a substantive discussion on what we may each be looking for in Collective Bargaining.”
“If somebody suggesting it, it’s either because there’s something in the water, people still have the NBA and NFL on the brain, or they’re just looking for news on a slow day. It is nothing more than speculation at this point. There can’t be any substance to it because there haven’t been any substantive conversations.”
“We’re in a completely different situation. There’s a new executive director who has gotten himself up to speed, new people, new relationships. Time will tell how this all sorts out. I’m hopeful that it sorts out easily because labor peace is preferable to the alternative.”
Going into the 2004 Stanley Cup Final and subsequently the off-season the NHL knew it needed a new way of doing business. Yet, today, Commissioner Bettman reminded the media prior to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals that the executive director of the Union knew four years in advance that there were serious economic problems and league could not go on for another season. He seems to be saying something similar this time around although the focus is more on revenue sharing.
Bettman’s tone in the news conference seemed to point out the fact that the two sides were not as far apart as they were in 2004. Both sides still felt they had time to work the numbers and a deal could be struck before the September 15 deadline, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement was set to expire. It appears the deadline is fast approaching and the parties do not seem any closer with a lockout now looming.
As the CBA talks have gone along in the process, Mr. Bettman’s opinion has sounded more like the one we heard in 2004 than in 2012. As he has noted multiple times, “There is still a wide gap between us with not much time to go… I do think it’s fair to say the sides are still apart, far apart, having different views of the world and the issues.”
While Donald Fehr and the Players Association would like to continue to negotiate and have games continue after the CBA expires on September 15, Commissioner Bettman has said, “The owners are not prepared to operate under this collective bargaining agreement for another season.”He made the point that the union knew about this for 9-12 months.
Those were the same exact words used by the commissioner during the lockout that cost the NHL an entire season. But how bad is the current system for the NHL? According to estimates made by the league, they earned $3.3 Billion which would be record revenue for the league. Than the question arises: did the lockout of 2004-05 do its job of fixing the economic problems that existed or did it?
The answer would seem yes since revenues are up, although there are still teams struggling financially. Recent estimates reflect the NHL is still losing money of approximately $240 million over the last two years. One side would argue it is overpaying players while the other side might say mismanagement by owners with franchises in cities that can’t support a team.
The dispute over how this revenue is split is the main sticking point during this negotiating session. The league wants to see an immediate reduction as their latest offer would result in 19 percent less being out to the players. The players are unwilling to have the overall pool drop from the $1.87 billion they received in 2011-12.
The league is pushing for a longer-term agreement while the union would settle on a shorter one. The current CBA was originally for six years, but the Players’ Association could have shortened it to four years if they did not like the system. Both parties also agreed that if NHLPA liked the system it could be extended by a year.
However, the Commissioner said the following about long term CBA contracts: “Seven years is a long time for a deal to be in place.” On one hand the , Mr. Bettman believes that a long-term Collective Bargaining Agreement is too long, but on the other hand the NHL and the owners would like a longer agreement. However, before this issue can get settled the NHL and the NHLPA must start talking again on the core fundamental issues and the secondary issues will fall into place.
While these two CBA negotiations are totally different, the tone from Commissioner Bettman seems to be the same. Though he wants the NHL to plot its own course in negotiating, it seems that the NHL and many other sports leagues want to go to a lockout as the first option and negotiating the second option.
If the goal is to reach a Collective Bargaining Agreement that can take the game and business to even higher levels than previously reached over the last seven years, then maybe the NHL should allow the game to operate under the current system, while both parties work on new system.
Whatever the case maybe, the fans will ultimately lose again in these negotiations sessions. Fans see rich owners and players, making substantially more than the average, fan arguing over money. It is difficult for the average fan to comprehend the money involved. All they see is a season which may be delayed or gone unless a settlement is made and perhaps higher ticket prices. Once again the fan suffers.