When the NHL decided its players won’t be competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, some folks asked the obvious question: Why wasn’t Olympic player participation mandated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement?
All manner and sort of things are written into the CBA, guaranteeing the players’ rights on a variety of matters. One of them, as we noted on Tuesday, are the requirements that need to be met for participation in the IIHF world championships – if they’re met, the players can represent their countries in that tournament. But the same thing wasn’t collectively bargained for the Olympics; which, in hindsight, is astounding.
It was in the CBA for the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games. But then it wasn’t when the latest CBA was ratified in 2013, a document that covered at least the next two Olympics. So what happened?
When the 2013 lockout ended with the ratification of the CBA, Sports Illustrated noted that the Olympics were not part of the deal:
The NHL and the NHLPA will need to engage in talks with the IIHF and IOC before coming to an agreement on the league’s potential participation at the Sochi Games and beyond. It wasn’t written into the CBA because there is some time to work on this matter, unlike in 2005 when the ’06 Games in Turin were only months away. The expectation is that NHLers will play at Sochi, but if this whole process has taught us anything, nothing is set until it’s set.
They did play at Sochi, but the lack of any iron-clad agreement on Olympic participation allowed the NHL to walk away from PyeongChang, South Korea.
Was it something the NHL players didn’t want to concede in negotiating bigger issues? That seems to be what NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr indicated in an interview with Jeff Blair of Sportsnet 590 on Wednesday. (And kudos to Blair for asking about it.)
“I think the answer to that is pretty simple. We had an understanding on Sochi, which held. There was always a generalized understanding that we’d look at the situation and if we didn’t have costs, we’d figure out a way to do it. When you were doing the deal in 2004-05, you knew where the games were going to be and you knew that 2010 was going to be in Vancouver. We had just heard about Korea at that point,” he said.
“I think the short answer is that no one envisioned that the owners would take this kind of view, which we indicated in our statement the other day, is basically just short-sighted and clearly contrary to the best interests of the game and the growth of the game.
“I mean, just consider for a moment: Maybe down the road in 10 or 12 years, the World Cup which we started last year will have enormous international presence. We certainly hope so. We think the quality of the competition merits that. But it doesn’t yet,” he said. “In terms of a global audience, you can’t do much better than the Olympics. In terms of an audience in Asia, which everybody wants to try and open and in which the NHL says it wants to try and open, where you have a big Olympic focus in China given the Games in 2008 and the Games in 2022 … you know, the real question is ‘why do you simply walk away from incredible numbers of hours of programming that are going to reach all kinds of people that would not otherwise watch NHL players?’”
“You’ve got be to be able to try to take advantage of that. We’re smart enough to do that, I would think,” he said. “For whatever series of reasons, the NHL’s position this time was, ‘Well, gee, somebody pay me. Gee, you guys don’t want to pay me? Okay, I’m going home. That’s about it.”
We’ll get back to the NHL’s decision on the 2018 Games in a moment, but Blair asked again: Do you regret not having mandatory player participation in the Olympics written into the CBA?
“In retrospect, you know, had anyone been able to anticipate this kind of an approach? Perhaps. But in the kind of bargaining we were in … first of all we were focused on much larger things. And the players made very large concessions to the owners, and the response appears to be they weren’t big enough,” he said.
Now, regarding 2018, Fehr was asked what tangible benefit there is to bringing NHL players to the Olympics, in light of the NHL bemoaning the fact that the IOC cut its funding and won’t open up its revenue streams to the League, and owners complaining about shutting down the season.
“Is there any evidence at all that NHL revenues fall because of participation in the Olympics? No one as even hinted at that,” he said.
As far as the owners not getting revenues from the Olympics, Fehr said it’s short-sighted.
“Depends on what your time horizon is. If it’s the next few months, and everything is self-contained, and you don’t believe in long-run business plans and you don’t believe in investment and attracting new costumers, then maybe nothing. But if you want to make investments where you make investments and showcase your product and you want to attract new fans and you want to move a North America-only sport to something that has a much larger global focus, you have to do these kinds of things,” he said.
Fehr then made a comparison.
“Would Amazon say to itself, ‘gee, I can’t quantify what my profit’s going to be in the next six weeks in some other country, so given that let’s stay home. No business that wants to grow would do that. The NBA’s been all over the world for a long, long time,” he said.
(Counterpoint: Would Amazon loan all of its intellectual property to another business, allow them to profit from it for three weeks and be totally OK with getting nothing out it but unquantifiable potential new business?)
So the mystery of the NHL players not getting Olympic participation mandated in the CBA is somewhat solved. Which leaves us with one lingering one: If the CBA mandates that any revenues generated by the Olympics are shared 50/50 between the players and owners – and it does – why aren’t the players more aligned with the owners in trying to get a cut of the money they make for the IOC?
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