I admit that I was pretty afraid of what would happen in these CBA negotiations when the Players’ Association revealed some ways back that Donald Fehr would be the guy running it after the various debacles that went down post-lockout.
All I really knew of whatever CBA negotiations were on the horizon were that the league was doing exceedingly well — though as it turned out, few of us would have guessed it would be doing this well in the summer of 2012 — and that Fehr was essentially the hardest of hard-assed union guys. The American sports fan saw the way he got Major League Baseball players to strike in 1994 and eventually won them the most insanely pro-player collective bargaining agreement of any professional sport in North America.
One thing the NHL didn’t need, I figured, was Fehr coming in and hard-lining issues like no salary cap and guaranteed contracts. Hockey is a lot of things, but “as popular as baseball” isn’t one of them. The NHL has a good TV deal, and MLB’s is so much better it’s not funny. Attendance at most NHL rinks is really strong, but the biggest sellout in the league comes about 15,000 people short of a sellout in the smallest ballpark. As such, while the NHL’s revenues are really good for what it is (a gate-driven league), and MLB’s blows them out of the water.
Fehr’s entrance, which reportedly came with a “get out of my god damn way or I’m gone and the owners will steamroll you” ultimatum to anyone who would dare stand up to him, was therefore not exactly the most welcome sight to those hoping to avoid yet another work stoppage, be it Lockout 3.0 or, worse, a players’ strike like the one Fehr orchestrated 18 years ago.
However, it turns out I wasn’t giving Fehr nearly enough credit. He’s a hardcase, not an idiot. The kinds of demands he had his PA strike for, and eventually won, wouldn’t and couldn’t ever work in hockey given how the league is currently constituted. Of course he knew that. What he and we know now, and what I probably couldn’t have known then, is how much dissent there is not between players and ownership, but between large- and small-market owners.
And so the Players’ Association’s counteroffer is, of course, a brilliantly crafted piece of business. The egregious overhauls to the current system proffered by the owners last month was never going to stick and everyone knew that, but many expected that Fehr’s proposal, given after a month of debate, fretting and (for him) reflection, would be a kind of counterpunch. It wasn’t. Instead, even without giving too many specifics, it likely eradicated any sympathy anyone with a high school education or better might have had for the poor owners.
Players are too greedy? Reports said that under Fehr’s proposal, while they won’t take any sort of salary rollback, they are — ahem — happily taking a smaller piece of the hockey-related revenue pie that artificially keeps the growth of their share depressed, and also allows for certain exceptions under the salary cap, which the PA says will remain a “hard cap.” I don’t know, exactly, how allowing exceptions keeps the cap “hard,” but then we haven’t seen a word of the counterproposal. (One report from the Canadian Press said it more or less amounts to a luxury tax.)
Further, in the post-offer presser, Gary Bettman had relatively little to say, and Fehr talked about how much the players were willing to give back as much as $465 million in revenue sharing on this, and why. In short, because we’ve come to understand that the league’s 30 owners don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on how revenue-sharing works, the PA’s leader saying that the players are taking the rollback HRR is because they recognize some teams are struggling is, frankly, perfect. It’s essentially saying, “Hey man, we’re just bystanders here in this war, but we want to help in any way we can without getting flattened.” Hoo boy is that good.
But there are two thing that concerns me: The PA’s proposal is only for three years, with an option for a fourth in which the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement will apply. One has to assume that won’t fly, but cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess.
Three years doesn’t seem like an especially long time to me. Imagine if, after the last lockout, we had to live under threat of going through this whole awful process again in 2007-08? I don’t want to have to sit through all this garbage again in August, 2016, or maybe August, 2017. Any time with relative labor peace is obviously a good thing for the sport (see also: the last seven years) but if we’re just going to get the same sanctimony from owners again then, abou how they’re getting killed and no one is doing well enough, then the relatively brief period here could prove very worrying.
The other issue, and maybe this is just showing my complete lack of faith in ownership to behave with anything resembling decorum after they swatted the players around so badly — and some would say deservedly — in the last CBA negotiation, is that I can’t imagine the big owners, however many of them there are that are actually making money, are going to be in that much of a hurry to fork over huge chunks of cash to the smaller markets. Again, we don’t know the exact language. Maybe those smaller spenders will be the direct beneficiaries of whatever luxury tax begins to exist, but still, the big guys are the ones behind that silly proposal last month and they’re going to be the ones driving the bus going forward. The hope for Fehr and the NHLPA (and all rational hockey fans) is that these guys come to their senses and see how good they’ve got it.
But this is a negotiation, of course, and the league is likely to see this opening salvo to be nearly as insulting the rest of the world saw its initial offer. But with any luck, this will finally turn public perception against owners, who successfully turned everyone against the players in 2004, and maybe we won’t miss any hockey next season.