Inside the Flyers: NHL stalemate is an insult to the fans

Commissioner Gary Bettman 's league took in a record $3.3 billion last season. Associated Press
Commissioner Gary Bettman 's league took in a record $3.3 billion last season. Associated Press
Posted: September 17, 2012

You can call them the Negotiations to Nowhere, but that would be too kind.

Instead, let's give Gary Bettman and Don Fehr the real synopsis of the NHL labor talks: an insult to the fans.

It's insulting mostly because Bettman, the NHL commissioner who smugly believes the fans will always be there, has seemed intent on getting a work stoppage and sending the players a message.

It's insulting that, in a downtrodden economy in which many fans can't afford the NHL's inflated ticket prices, the millionaire players and ultra-rich owners couldn't come up with a compromise and have a new collective-bargaining agreement in place.

It's insulting that an owner-imposed lockout went into place at 11:59 p.m. Saturday and that the start of training camps (next Saturday) and the beginning of the season (Oct. 11) are in jeopardy.

Oh, and so is the entire season, based on what happened when the owners locked out the players in 2004-05. That led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 campaign, marking the first time a major pro sports league in North America lost an entire season in a labor dispute.

Hooray, Mr. Bettman!

This is the third lockout in Bettman's tenure as the NHL's commissioner, making him 3 for 3 on the ol' negotiating scoreboard - and on the verge of creating fan apathy that could haunt the sport for ages.

Yes, Bettman has done some good things. The sport has grown in popularity, and has a TV deal with NBC. It should also be noted that, on Bettman's watch, the Winter Classic was introduced and turned out to be pure genius from a public-relations standpoint.

Last year, the Bettman-led NHL had a record $3.3 billion - that's billion, with a B - in revenues.

That said, if this lockout lasts for long, Bettman's legacy won't be what he did for the owners or the game's growth. It will be how he ruined the NHL for the fans.

Who wants to passionately follow a team when you know that every time the collective bargaining agreement expires, there will be a work stoppage?

Bettman said that the players are making too much money and that salaries have to be reduced. Almost right after he said it, the financially strapped Phoenix Coyotes gave soon-to-be-36-year-old Shane Doan a four-year, $21.2 million contract.

Bettman cries poor - supposedly at least 10 NHL teams are losing money. But those same teams continue offering enormous contracts to players. (See Nashville, which gave Shea Weber a 14-year, $110 million deal.)

If Bettman really wants to help those struggling (wink, wink) small-market franchises, why has he resisted increasing the revenue-sharing and having the financially strong teams (such as the Flyers and Maple Leafs) contribute more money to help subsidize the have-nots?

Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Association and the man who led the 1994 baseball players' strike that wiped out the World Series, also deserves some blame.

The NHL made some meaningful movement last week, tweaking a proposal on the players' share of hockey-related revenue (It's not true that HRR stands for Have Refunds Ready for the fans). As of Saturday, there were no indications Fehr had countered that offer.

The players took in 57 percent of the HRR in the last collective-bargaining agreement. The owners initially wanted the players' share reduced to 43 percent in the new CBA; they have since boosted their offer to 49 percent for the first year of a six-year CBA, which goes down to 47 percent in the last four years of the pact. (HRR determines the salary cap and how much teams are allowed to spend.)

The players - who will receive, on average, a $204,000 escrow check next month based on their 2011-12 salaries - want to get about 52 percent to 54 percent of the HRR pie, linking the percentages to projected growth.

As this space said last week, stop the posturing. Stop insulting the fans' intelligence. Stop the greed. Go to a 50/50 split and move on to the other issues.

There is still time to get a deal done before the season starts. Still time to stop the rhetoric and regain the fans' trust. But if this lingers and a lot of games are missed, everyone loses: the fans, the players, the owners, and, perhaps most important, those toiling at second jobs as arena workers.

Maybe the NHL, which scored a victory by having a salary cap installed and having a 24-percent rollback in players' salaries in the last CBA, will cave in if this stalemate reaches late November because it wants to save the Winter Classic. Maybe the players will cave in because their bills are starting to pile up, even with a hefty escrow check.

It really doesn't matter. The average fan, trying to stretch the dollar in a furlough-mad economy, can't relate.

In the spirit of the hockey legends who helped build up this great game - the Gordie Howes, Bobby Orrs, Bernie Parents, et al. - both sides need to stop being so greedy and start creating some common ground.

One fan on Twitter suggested that representatives for the owners and players should be locked in a Manitoba hotel room (with the heat turned off, I say) and not allowed to come out until an agreement is reached. Until then, the fan wrote, do not give us any more updates.

I second the motion.


Inside the Flyers: NHL Labor Scoreboard

What the owners want

Concessions, concessions, concessions, including a reduction in the players' take in hockey-related revenue, which consists of numerous non-salary categories, including gate receipts, national and international digital broadcasts, TV and radio broadcasts, merchandising, club Internet sites, concession stands, luxury boxes and suites, fixed and temporary signage, parking, and arena sponsorships.

The owners also want a five-year maximum length on players' contracts - apparently to control themselves from offering those 14-year, $110 million deals - and lengthened entry-level contracts (read: cheaper), among other things.

What the players want

Less of a reduction on hockey-related revenue, and increased revenue-sharing to help the small-market clubs, which, in essence, could save those struggling franchises (hello, Phoenix and Florida) and preserve jobs.

The players took a big hit in the last collective-bargaining agreement - crafted after the 2004-05 season was wiped out - by conceding to a salary cap and a 24 percent cut in salaries. They seem unified not to take another hit.

Where they stand

Before they can get to several major issues, both sides are in a stalemate over hockey-related revenue. The players took in 57 percent in the last CBA. The owners initially wanted to reduce the players' take to 43 percent in the new six-year proposal. The owners' last proposal was to give the players 49 percent in the first year, 48 in the second year, and 47 percent over the last four years.

The NHLPA's latest proposal was a package that gave the players 54.3 percent in the first year and ended at 52.7 percent.

Hockey-related revenue, and how it is divided, will affect the formula that produces the salary-cap ceiling, which is now at $70.2 million. That ceiling figures to drop as the players get less of the revenue pie - and that will affect salaries. .

The owners stand firm that a change in revenue-sharing is not needed - big-market teams, such as the Flyers, are fine with the current setup. The players' association disagrees.

According to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the league's proposal includes salary reductions of approximately 9 percent, 7 percent, and 4 percent in the first three years. That's too much, the players say.

Bettman, whose league took in a record $3.3 billion in revenue last season, said the average salary has climbed from $1.45 million in the last CBA seven years ago to $2.55 million last season.

What perfectly sums up the lockout situation

Washington forward Brooks Laich said it's unfortunate "when adults get in the way of a kid's game."

Amen.

- Sam Carchidi


Contact Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com or on Twitter @BroadStBull.

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