National Hockey League teams, particularly in this country, enjoy a rather enviable arrangement with their fans. No matter how much they raise prices – for tickets, for merchandise, for concessions – supporters keep showing up, in some cases regardless of whether the teams win very often.
And yet those teams and their players continue to have a difficult time living up to their end of the bargain – which is simply playing the games they are scheduled to play. It was less than eight years ago that the NHL missed an entire season because of a labour dispute. With commissioner Gary Bettman threatening yet another lockout if there is no new collective agreement with the players’ association by Sept. 15, it now appears headed toward its third lengthy work stoppage in the past two decades.
With fewer teams facing financial difficulties than previously, the latest trouble appears to be caused less by urgent flaws in the NHL’s business model than by a dispute over how to divvy up the spoils of fans’ loyalty. Players now receive a 57-per-cent share of (consistently rising) revenues; team owners think it should be well below half.
Neither side seems to feel a great imperative to reach a compromise. The league and the union appear to have been emboldened by the response to the last lockout; if fans returned in droves then, they surely would again.
Perhaps that assumption is correct. But the NHL risks eventually exhausting its fans’ seemingly limitless patience. To Canadians and Americans suffering through turbulent economic times, the sight of millionaire players and multimillionaire owners haggling over how to divide the hard-earned dollars of their considerably less affluent supporters is a decidedly unseemly one. And the fact that the league’s employees can afford to miss an entire year of work only serves as a reminder of their comfort. How many other unions, and how many other employers, would have such a luxury?
If fans expected athletes to be working-class heroes, or even people to whom they could relate, professional sports would have lost their followings a long time ago. That doesn’t mean it’s wise for the NHL to continue rubbing its alternative reality in fans’ faces, by refusing to do the one thing that is expected of it.