Let's be honest about the NHL lockout: Cut through all the spin and posturing, and it's about money and leverage. It's about greed and arrogance. It's about hypocrisy and stupidity. And that goes for both sides.
The owners screw up the system that was supposed to save them. They demand the players take a paycut despite seven years of record revenues. They cry poor while they continue to spend and spend and spend, signing players to contracts they don't intend to honor in full. Even the league-owned, for-sale Phoenix Coyotes sign 36-year-old Shane Doan to a four-year, $21 million deal. They give him a $2 million signing bonus deferred to the end of the contract, soothing the pain to come. They defeat their own purpose.
The players take every advantage of the system and act offended when the owners want to adjust it. Though they make major concessions and have a sympathetic case, they still insist on raises and drag their feet in negotiations. They ask the NHL to cut other costs while asking for business-class flights and single rooms in luxury hotels, and they say they stand on principle while meeting at the New York Marriott Marquis, a non-union hotel, as the Fortune Limousine service idles outside. A black SUV displays an NHLPA sign and this license plate: "FORTUNE1." That's rich.
[Related: Fans vent anger over impending lockout]
Tone deaf and dumb. That's what this is. The NHL canceled the 2004-05 season because of a lockout, an unprecedented move, and it came back stronger than anyone ever expected. There were new rules. There were new stars -- Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin. The game grew and grew and grew, and it grew and grew and grew some more, and then the billionaires and millionaires couldn't agree on how to share the discretionary spending of thousandaires, taking all of that growth and goodwill for granted.
There was a deal to be made here. There is still a deal to be made here. This is not 2004-05, when the sides were fighting over the very concept of a salary cap. They are working within the same framework, and they actually agree on some fundamental things. The players are willing to take less of a percentage of revenue, while the owners are willing to share more revenue among themselves, just not at the levels to satisfy each other.
The owners could come off their demand of a pay cut, the players could come off their demand of a pay raise and the sides could freeze the players' share for this season. They could find a way to pay current contracts as they were supposedly intended. The sides could meet in the middle on percentage of revenue, scaling towards about 50-50 over time, so as the players' percentage decreases, their actual pay still rises along with the owners' take. The sides could go from there.
But reaching a deal like that would take common sense, and this has never been about common sense. The owners never gave the players something to think about, demanding they cut their percentage of revenue from 57 to 43, then inching it up to 46 and 47, while attacking contract lengths, arbitration rights and free agency eligibility. While the players gave up hundreds of millions of potential dollars, they never budged much from their first offer, still asking for raises of 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent over the next three seasons, compounded.
Reaching a deal like that would take a sense of urgency, too -- because for the players to keep theircurrent $1.88 billion, for future growth to meet projections, the lockout cannot last very long -- and there isn't nearly enough of a sense of urgency.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tried to add urgency when he made the league's latest offer, which came off the table at midnight Saturday as the collective bargaining agreement expired and the lockout began. But the NHL Players' Association always viewed Sept. 15 as an artificial deadline and acted as such, constantly pointing out that it was the owners' choice to lockout the players.
Training camps aren't scheduled to start until Sept. 21, though they will be canceled quickly. The regular season isn't scheduled to start until Oct. 11. No one has felt pain yet, and no one will for a while. The owners are receiving $200 million from NBC this season, while the players are receiving 8 percent of last year's salary in escrow checks on Oct. 15.
[Also: Puck Daddy's lockout guide]
Eventually the owners will miss enough gate receipts or the players will miss enough paychecks, and someone will feel pressure. But when? The real deadline might not come until the lockout threatens U.S. national TV games, scheduled to start in November, or the Winter Classic outdoor showcase, scheduled for New Year's Day -- and expected to draw a record crowd of 110,000-plus to Michigan Stadium to see the Detroit Red Wings host the Toronto Maple Leafs. It might not even come until an entire season is threatened again.
And so we wait.
We wait while Bettman threatens that the league's offer will keep getting worse, the owners squeezing and squeezing. We wait while NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr makes his ideological arguments, the players hoping and hoping.
We wait while the accountants crunch the numbers and the lawyers argue in court. We wait while the players scatter to local rinks and the minors and Europe, skating for nothing or playing for less somewhere else.
We wait while real people are hurt -- staff members, arena workers, bartenders -- and the hardcore fans suffer. We wait while Canada goes without a piece of its soul, and while casual sports fans in many U.S. markets watch football and baseball and basketball and forget the NHL is even missing again, if they realize it ever left in the first place.
We wait, and we wonder why, and it is a waste of time.
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