The NHL lockout, which began at midnight Sunday morning, is obviously about money. It’s about how billionaire owners mitigate operating expenses and share the revenues that are distributed to pay the salaries to millionaire players.
Of course, not all NHL players are millionaires. At least, they don’t all pull greater than $1 million per season. But even the lowest annual NHL salary is more than most folks can even imagine making. It’s hard to find a relevant place to start the discussion.
Therein lies the problem that most fans have with the whole work stoppage and labor negotiations. Normal folks — you and me — can appreciate a laborer and union fighting for better working conditions, fair wages, benefits, a safe work environment. It’s tough to empathize in this situation with either the billionaire owners or millionaire players. The owners are being made out to be the bad guys, but it’s much more complex than that.
The NHL is a business. The league is run by businessmen. The teams are owned by businessmen. The teams and organizations and arenas are for-profit businesses. The billionaire owners have every right to run their businesses in a manner where they can maximize profits because that’s what businessmen do. They invested their capital to become part of a very exclusive fraternity and as such, have certain responsibilities to each other to protect those investments and earning capacities.
The players association is, in all practical applications, a labor union. As such, they are represented by talented and ruthless negotiators. The last time we all went through this, the players thought they got a raw deal, mainly because they did. Their representation failed them last time. They want to correct that raw deal in this negotiation so they went out and got better representation. They got the man who once forced the cancellation of the World Series.
The players feel like they deserve a bigger slice of the pie. The owners want to protect — or better — the terms they were able to win in the last negotiation. Discussions to this point have been fruitless, and the only way to escalate the discourse is for both parties to be in a position to lose out on the revenue stream that they are fighting over.
The players earn stipends during the preseason. They don’t start pulling paychecks until the start of the regular season. Some are better off financially than others, better equipped to withstand missing out on game checks. Some players will soften the blow by playing in leagues overseas. The NHLPA will assist players with insurance and living arrangements in some situations.
The owners will lose money with empty arenas, starting in preseason. But they won’t start losing real money until the first of the year, when network television money would have kicked in. The owners have deeper pockets to withstand a short stoppage, but they also have more to lose.
Hockey is not a business. Hockey is a game. Fans love the game of hockey. They love hockey players. They love the excitement of the games. They love elimination games. The game isn’t going anywhere. It’s been here for a century and isn’t going to be wiped out by labor negotiations between billionaires and millionaires.
Unfortunately, the NHL isn’t a game. It’s a business. Fans don’t love the business of hockey. The business gets in the way of just playing the game. This work stoppage — this lockout — threatens the very revenue source both the owners and players need to survive. There are no winners with a work stoppage — not the owners, players or fans. Yet, here we are. Again.
Hockey will survive. The business of hockey just might not this time.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.