NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s comments following this week’s unproductive CBA talks simplified the league’s position and explained its willingness to risk another lockout.
In business, as in other areas of life, there’s is something called the “KISS” formula – “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was evidently following this formula in his recent comments on Thursday to reporters following this week’s unproductive NHL CBA talks.
This was how he described the league’s position: “We think we’re paying too much in salaries…We want something close to what we envisioned eight years ago”.
Bettman also explained why he’s unafraid of any lasting damage to the league from another lockout: “We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans”.
Take a moment and allow those statements to sink in.
Despite staging a season-killing lockout eight years ago to force upon a beaten and broken NHLPA the most restrictive salary cap system in North American pro sports (a triple-tiered cap system with escrow to ensure the players never receive more than 57 percent of league revenue each season) – which Bettman claimed would achieve the cost certainty the NHL needed to bring salaries under control and make the game more affordable to fans – the league still believes it is paying its players too much.
The very system forced upon the players, which Bettman claimed was so necessary for the NHL’s long-term survival, is no longer good enough.
Some league supporters will undoubtedly try to pin the blame again on “greedy players” and their “parasitic agents”, but the bottom line is the teams pay those salaries, and do so under the extremely restrictive system of cost certainty they believed was worth killing a season for.
No one forced them to do it. They did it willingly, often exploiting loopholes in the CBA by signing players to extremely long-term, heavily front-loaded contracts to ensure lower cap hits.
One need only look at the moves made this summer, in the midst of CBA negotiations – the Minnesota Wild signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to the kind of expensive contracts their owner claimed this April his club couldn’t afford, the Philadelphia Flyers targeting Shea Weber with a $110 million offer sheet, the Buffalo Sabres apparent willingness to overpay an ageing Shane Doan – to see the hypocrisy from the league side.
Once again, the team owners claim they’re paying too much, that the CBA which was their pride and joy isn’t working out as envisioned, and they expect the players to give back more.
One reason for the change in opinion by the NHL team owners is they see the NBA and NFL having recently extracted concessions from their players to accept a lower share of revenue – around 50-50 for both leagues – and want the same for themselves.
The league also apparently seeks to improve revenue-sharing, but rather than have it come from the big market teams, it would prefer if the players shouldered the burden by reducing their share of HRR.
Should another lockout come as expected in mid-September, Bettman and his spokesmen could attempt to employ the same arguments about cost certainty as they did in 2004. If his remark about envisioning something close to what they wanted eight years ago is anything to go by, he’s already begun.
Most NHL fans trusted Bettman and the team owners last time around. They bought the cost certainty snake oil, so little wonder the league could try to sell it again.
Judging by Bettman’s comment about how “the world’s greatest fans” ensured there was no damage to the league in the last lockout, he fully expects NHL fans will believe it again.
The commissioner obviously intended his remark to be a compliment, but if the reaction from social media was anything to go by, it fell flat.
NHL fans are not stupid sheep for supporting the league following the last lockout, but Bettman’s remark clearly indicates the league takes them for granted.
It also suggests the league believes its fan support provides it with leverage over the players. The team owners can risk another lockout, perhaps another season-killing one, to get what it wants from the players, secure in the knowledge the fans will return like they always do.
As blogger Tom Benjamin pointed out, those who thought league’s new deal with NBC and The Winter Classic “might provide pressure points upon the league were also indulging in wishful thinking”, as it has lockout protection built into those contracts ensuring they get their money regardless of a work stoppage.
Bettman and the team owners aren’t negotiating here. They’re attempting to impose a mandate, demanding the players accept less money on an even more restrictive CBA, and will force them into it by locking them out again.
To simplify: the NHL wants the players to accept a considerably lower share of revenue, secure in the knowledge it can extract that concession with another lockout that won’t cause damage its brand, because the fans always come back.
It’s bound to be infuriating to the players, and to the fans, but honestly, there’s not much they can do about it.
For the players, the only way out appears to accept less revenue – a 50-50 split or worse – or lose part or all of another season, and have perhaps even harsher terms forced upon them.
NHLPA director Donald Fehr is a savvy negotiator, but this time, he’s up against a different beast than the one he faced down for years in Major League Baseball, one willing to do whatever it takes to achieve its goals. It’s going to take all his savvy and creativity to keep the players united and find a workable solution.
As for the fans, unless they’re willing to punish the league where it will do the most damage – in its collective pocketbook – petitions and social media protests will amount to nothing. As I’ve previously noted, they’re powerless to prevent another lockout.
Bettman did everyone a favor by simplifying the league’s position regarding the CBA talks and highlighting its lack of concern over fallout from another lockout. The consequences remain to be seen, but it’s clear he expect things to fall the league’s way again.