Tonawanda News — To absolutely no one’s surprise, the National Hockey League’s owners have locked out the players, the league’s third work-stoppage in 20 years.
The last time around, fans mostly sided with the owners, agreeing that player salaries had gotten out of control and that a salary cap was needed to put all franchises on a more level sheet of ice. The players resisted and the result was the Stanley Cup never being engraved with a winner in 2005.
With that memory still fresh in many fans’ minds, the general response I’ve heard this time is to lay blame more or less equally on both sides. Resist that temptation. This lockout is solely the owners’ fault.
In the seven seasons since the owners eventually wore down the players and got their wish for a salary cap, league revenue has doubled. The salary cap, which is set at 57 percent of league revenue, has increased from $35 million per team in its first season to $70 million now.
Listen to reviled NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and times have never been better for the NHL. Seven different teams have won the Cup in the last seven seasons. A longshot bet in turning down a pathetic TV offer from ESPN and awarding broadcast rights to upstart network Versus paid off big-time when Versus was purchased by NBC and converted into the NBC Sports Network. Hockey’s appeal as a cheap but powerful draw in Northeast media markets made for a landmark 10-year deal that has the NHL calling the Peacock home.
After its success here in Western New York, the annual Winter Classic outdoor game is a legitimate sports spectacle and has wrestled the sports world’s New Year’s Day attention away from college football and onto the NHL’s biggest stars.
So why would the owners risk forfeiting all that momentum with a lockout? The answer is simple: greed.
And it isn’t greed across the board by owners. It’s a select few of the richest owners who want to claw back nearly a quarter of the league’s hockey-related revenue from the men who actually play the sport.
Despite seeing revenue double, many franchises aren’t profitable and most lose money or break even. To wit: Eighteen of the league’s 30 teams lost money in 2011.
But with so much profit to go around, how is that possible? Well, the top 10 teams are situated in markets where hockey is strongly supported. But the league’s push in the 1990s to expand into Southern cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Miami, Tampa, Raleigh, Nashville and others has never really taken hold. Hockey is a regional sport and supported most strongly in places where it snows.
My friend Nick Mendola last week pointed out that seven of the eight worst-performing franchises in fan attendance have been moved into their market since 1990, with Bettman’s blessing. Only the lowly New York Islanders are among the league’s least supported franchises and situated in a market where hockey should, at least hypothetically, thrive.
The owners, of course, could fix this problem. Their revenue-sharing agreement — the pact that sees teams divvy up shares of television money and the like — is weak. It allows the rich teams to a larger slice of the pie than the smaller, less profitable ones.
This has led to another imbalance in competition. The league’s $70 million salary cap is much higher than many small-market teams can reach unless they’ve got an owner like Terry Pegula, who seems like he almost WANTS to lose money.
Yes, the salary cap needs to be reduced. But that alone won’t solve the league’s larger financial problems. With a systemic haves-and-have-nots scenario, cash-strapped teams will never be able to compete for the best free agents and we’ll wind up right back where we were in the early 2000s.
Of course, it’s the same wealthy owners who dole out absurd contracts to free agents who are now seeking salary roll-backs. It’s rather like the owners poured the gasoline and lit the match, then pointed at the players when the house inevitably caught fire.
With all that, you’d think the owners would put revenue-sharing on the table as part of these negotiations. They have not. The owners’ solution is to roll back salaries and make the players take the loss so the richest teams don’t have to. Taken to its obvious end, the best case scenario for the owners is to turn back the clock and let the whole scenario play out again over the course of whatever agreement is eventually reached.
Mark my words, if the owners win out in this dispute, mark your calendars for another lockout when the new CBA expires.
The position taken by the NHL Players Association is by far the more responsible of the two sides. A smaller salary and salary cap roll-back and greater responsibility between owners to ensure overall financial health of the league and its 30 franchises would put the game on a better path.
Here’s hoping it happens.
Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at email@example.com.