Now we're talking.
Now that the NHL has finally made a realistic proposal, the onus is on the NHL Players' Association to respond in kind. The onus is on both sides to get down to nitty-gritty negotiating.
The time for PR and posturing is over. The time for doom-and-gloom brinksmanship is over. In the best interests of both sides – and therefore the game and the fans – the time has come to hammer out a deal, end this lockout and start the 2012-13 season.
The players won't like everything the NHL put on the table Tuesday when commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy Bill Daly visited NHLPA headquarters in Toronto. Even a 50/50 split of hockey-related revenue means $231 million less for the players per year, if HRR remains flat. And no doubt, the devil is in the details.
Fine. But there should have been enough there to spark give and take, and there is not enough space on the calendar to screw around. Bettman said the NHL's offer was contingent on starting an 82-game regular season on Nov. 2. Teams would need at least one week for training camp.
"So we have about nine or 10 days to get this all put to bed – signed, sealed and delivered – in order for this offer to be effective," Bettman said.
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr will not be pressured by artificial deadlines. He will not rush to make a bad deal for the players. But this is not an artificial deadline, and this is an opportunity – perhaps his last opportunity – to make the best deal for the players.
Bettman is clever, and his timing and tactics show it.
"We've given it our best shot," Bettman said, standing on the union's home turf, giving just enough detail to sway public opinion, trying to seize the high ground at just the right moment.
But it's hard to say this is not a true attempt to make a deal and start playing right away. Under the NHL’s proposal, teams would not have to scramble their current rosters to get under the salary cap. And Bettman is not bluffing. By starting Nov. 2, the NHL could play 82 games without compressing the schedule too much – adding one game every five weeks – and without pushing the playoffs past June.
Compress the schedule more, and you compromise player safety, something the union should oppose. Trim the number of regular-season games, and you lose real money, alienate the fans further and risk future growth.
This is a real deadline. That is one thing on which everyone, finally, should agree.
"They would still like to get a full 82-game season in," Fehr said. "We, of course, share that view and would like to get a full 82-game season in. And so what our hope is, is that after we review this, that there will be a feeling on the players' side that this is a proposal from which we can negotiate and try and reach a conclusion."
Bare minimum, this was a proposal from which the players should be able to negotiate. At the very least, they should try to reach a conclusion now. They have no excuse not to come back with something reasonable. If they don't like something in the NHL's proposal, they should suggest something else. They cannot complain that the league put them on the spot, because they had a chance to make their own new proposal and did not do it.
Let's look at the main points:
– The pay cut: The players' No. 1 principle in this labor battle has been "no rollback." The owners had been demanding an immediate reduction in salaries via escrow, unwilling to honor current contracts as supposedly intended. That was why we were at a stalemate.
But now the owners at least have offered to honor current contracts with deferred money.
"Players would be paid back over time," Daly said in an e-mail.
Essentially, the owners would get the salary relief they want now, but they would make up the difference down the road, when growth should give them more breathing room. The players would be giving the owners an interest-free loan, but at least they would get their money in the end. They have to decide if that's enough.
– The revenue split: First, understand this: The 50/50 split has never sounded as fair to the players as it has to the public. The players say they received 51 percent of all revenues last season, when they received 57 percent of hockey-related revenue.
Second, understand this: Though the players have been willing to reduce their share of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent toward 50, they have always asked for guaranteed money the first three years – raises of 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent, compounded, over their $1.87 billion in salary last season – counting on growth to turn those numbers into descending percentages of HRR. Their projections had their share of HRR going down gradually to 52 percent; the NHL is now starting at 50.
Big questions: Will the players start negotiating on a percentage basis, and will they go all the way to 50? Are the owners willing to get to 50/50 gradually, rather than right away?
– Revenue sharing: The players have said their proposal addresses the real problem in the NHL – the great disparity in revenue from market to market – by increasing revenue sharing and targeting it to the teams that need it most. They have proposed $240 million.
Well, the league is now at $200 million, up from previous offers and up from $140 million last season. Are the sides really that far apart here?
– Contracting rules: The NHL had attacked contract lengths, arbitration rights and free agency eligibility. The owners have backed off a bit now. Daly said they made "substantial modification to system proposals."
The owners still want to limit contracts to five years, but instead of requiring 10 years of service for unrestricted free agency, now they would require eight years of service and 28 years of age. It is unclear what the NHL proposed in terms of entry-level contracts, but the length would likely depend on draft position. Arbitration would continue.
Can the players live with that? If not, they can ask for more modification – longer contracts, fewer years of service for free agency. They can propose something else. As long as the new agreement includes some mechanism that stops the back-diving, long-term contracts that circumvent the spirit of the salary cap, the owners should be able to live with it.
Look, the owners are going to win here. They were going to win all along. As Calgary Flames forward Michael Cammalleri said shortly before the lockout began, the players have already lost. Their first offer included hundreds of millions of potential dollars going to the owners.
The question was never whether the owners would get a better deal than the one they had before, it was how much of a better deal it would be – and how far they would push. The question was how much Fehr could save for the players, when the NFL and NBA players just accepted around 50 percent or less after lockouts, and how long he would hold out.
Well, now the owners have put 50/50 on the table. They're approaching what we always figured was their end game.
What is the players' end game? If it's to keep as much as they can, they need to negotiate now. They don't have to accept the proposal the NHL made Tuesday, but they have to accept reality – that the owners have more leverage, like it or not, and that an 82-game season is on the brink.
"I would like to believe that after we're done with this that it'll be an excellent starting point, and we can go forward and see if there's a deal to be made," Fehr said. "I've been looking for a way to get these negotiations jumpstarted, and if this does it, that'd be great. We'll see, though."
We'll see soon.