The NHL Labor Dispute: The Puck Drops Here
"Every day is a great day for hockey." - Mario Lemeiux
Well, hockey's back, and I am jacked! I've been craving my hockey fix worse than Honey Boo Boo craves sketti with butter and ketchup! Within a couple of weeks, the Los Angeles Kings will raise their Stanley Cup banner to the rafters of Staples Center, and life in the NHL will carry on as if the last four months never happened. Across the country, arena lights will be turned on, the turnstiles will revolve, and, finally, blissfully, the puck will drop!
Since this whole thing began, I've found myself missing the sport much more than I thought I would. Hockey is near the bottom of the list of my favorite sports, but as a Michigander, the fabricated ice of a hockey rink still coursees through my veins to some degree. The Wolverines struggled through a mediocre football season, the Pistons have yet to live up to their modest expectations, and the Lions... well, their horrid performance actually matched my expectations perfectly. All of this futility has led to a desperate yearning for my Red Wings and the NHL as a whole. But, now that the puck is officially set to drop, my excitement has abated, my rage and frustration has angrily pushed its way to the forefront of my thoughts, and bitter questions swirl around my hockey-deprived head.
Why couldn't a group of tough guy millionaires and a group of billionaire suits sit down and get a deal worked out before it came to this? How do they expect to put a quality product on the ice with a week-long training camp? Do I really even care about a 48 game season? Why would I pay upwards of $100 for a ticket to a regular season game that will have a much smaller-than-usual impact on playoff teams and their seeding? Why is it that one of the greatest sports in the world is run by the biggest bunch of morons in the world?
With a week to go before the season would have been lost for good, the league and its players struck a deal with the owners over the weekend to end the lockout. Sadly, I suspect that both sides knew that they could stretch the lockout to precisely this point and still salvage a "season" without losing too much from an economic standpoint.
The truth is that most casual sports fans don't really care about hockey until after the holidays, and the owners are fully aware of this fact. Because of this, more than most sports, hockey's bread is buttered near the end of the season as the games become more meaningful. The NHL doesn't begin generating significant television ratings until early February - after the NFL playoffs have ended and the NBA fans begin to get restless. They weren't really losing much money over the last few months, so they weren't in any rush to jump-start negotiations and get a product back on the ice.
So, now, with an abbreviated season, the league wants us to believe that every game will be vital for playoff positioning. This position makes sense in theory, but the result will be several undeserving teams making the playoffs because the sample size of a team's schedule will be inadequate in representing a team's true talent over the course of a shortened season. To this end, slumps must be avoided at all costs, and streaks will be valued like never before. Not to mention an inevitable increase in injuries and a likewise inevitable decline in the product put on the ice. We shouldn't expect crisp play with only a week or so to prepare for regular season games.
The two sides agreed on a 50-50 revenue split in which the "players" share of the money will go toward supplementing the finances of the less profitable franchises (Phoenix Coyotes, Carolina Panthers, San Jose Sharks, etc.). Revenue sharing is vital in all sports, but especially in hockey, where teams in certain regions earn considerably higher profits than others. This helps create parity in the sport by allowing these smaller market teams to spend more money on resigning their own players as well as potentially making a bigger splash in the free agent market. The more parity, the better the competition; the better the competition, the better the product; the better the product, the happier fan. Simple reasoning, really. Revenue sharing leads to a superior sport. So, while I'm glad that the two sides were able to come to a consensus on this issue, I can't help but shake my head in confusion over why half a season and countless fans had to be lost before they could do so.
Over the next few days, there will be constant debate on ESPN over who won the labor dispute: the owners or the players. Talking heads like Skip Bayless and Woody Paige will scream at each other over the validity of the two positions, arguing that the players shouldn't have conceded so much in revenue sharing and that owners shouldn't have backed off capping player contracts at five years, but these shouting matches are completely missing the point. The vital element here has nothing to do with dollars and cents, and everything to do with a rapidly disappearing fan base. The NHL will pay lip service to the idea that they appreciate the fans, but their actions tell an entirely different story. With a professional sports lockout, there are never any winners, everyone loses - most notably the fans.
This was the third such labor dispute resulting in lost games in the NHL in less than 20 years, and casual fans such as myself are more than a little annoyed by the constant corporate intrusion into such a pure sport. NHL owners and players repeatedly ignore their lifeblood, the fan, because they are convinced that their "right" to a larger slice of the pie trumps the fans' "right" to actually enjoy the game. This type of backward thinking may have made both the players and the owners richer in the short term, but it may also result in millions of once dedicated fans heading for the exits.This could mean the eventual death of the entire league. More than any sport, hockey revenues are generated by fan attendance, rather than the media-driven revenue of other sports. Therefore, if that attendance dips low enough, the NHL could have a real problem on their hands.
Don't believe me? Think this is just a blip on the radar and that the true hockey purists will come out in droves this "season"? Go ask Bud Selig how long it took him to rebuild the fan base of "America's pastime" after the 1994 MLB strike. I think he might have an answer for you in the next 20 years or so.