Professional sport is all about winners and losers, which is why there is an inevitable rush to judgment now that the NHL lockout is finally over. Who won? Who lost? And ultimately, which side will look back on the deal they so lovingly crafted Sunday in the wee small hours of a New York morning and decide, it all worked out for them in the end?
Short term, you’d have to say the players salvaged what they could in what was always a dispute over how to reset the financial parameters of the league. If you go back to the 288-page proposal made by commissioner Gary Bettman nine days ago, the players won concessions on contract length, salary cap in the second year and the pension plan. The owners got the term they wanted in a new collective bargaining agreement – 10 years, with a player option after eight – but gave ground elsewhere to get a deal done.
You always knew that with Bettman negotiating for one side and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr for the other, that they would wring every last drop of blood from the stone before finally having that bleary-eyed press conference to signal the end of the third significant work stoppage under Bettman’s soon to be 20-year reign.
And by the way, if you think this is the end for Bettman, you better think again. He is under contract to represent the owners’ financial interests – nothing more and nothing else. From his employers’ perspective, there will be no clear sense of how well he made out in this negotiation until a minimum of 18 months have passed.
Only then – when revenue figures from the full 2013-14 season are in – will they get a clearer picture of how much damage the 113-day standoff actually caused.
In the end, the two sides came together to do the deal for one reason alone. They understood the cost of playing under a less-than-perfect agreement was far preferable to the alternative – losing an entire year – which could have been catastrophic for both sides.
It is why both sides will now turn their attention on wooing back you – the fan – in the weeks and months ahead. Primarily, hockey remains a largely gate-receipt driven industry and thus needs bums back in the seats to make the financial numbers work.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is still one golden goose on the horizon – Canadian television rights – which means the NHL also needs your eyeballs glued to the television set in the same record numbers that they had prior to the lockout. Overall TV revenues exploded during the term of the now expired CBA, when the NBC Sports Network came to the table with a deal worth $2-billion, this after the NHL couldn’t even sell U.S. national TV rights at all back in 2005. That was a significant windfall and it meant for the first time in league history, U.S. rights were worth more than Canadian rights.
So now, when all those national rights deals come up in a year’s time, for Hockey Night In Canada, for TSN, for Sportsnet – the bidding was expected to be fierce – and it still could be, provided ratings don’t drop off a cliff. This, interestingly, is how fans of every stripe can show their displeasure with the lockout – by using their clickers to skip past NHL broadcasts when they return. If the ratings fall through the floor, then those rights fees will not generate nearly the numbers they would have if fans find themselves in the mood to forgive and forget.
Trying to get an accurate read on how the disillusionment among the paying public and league sponsors will play out is the biggest unknown in the equation. By saving a partial season, the league and the players association believe they have a chance to mitigate the damage that has been done.
Maybe there were reasons for optimism back in June when the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup – and that the steady upward revenue growth seen during the past seven seasons would continue. Remember how all of Fehr’s early pitches were based on revenues continuing at a 7.1 per cent annual upward trajectory? Nobody in their right minds is talking about a 7.1 per cent annual growth rate anymore.
Instead, the goal is to minimize the damage done, which is why playing now is so important – and this year’s playoffs are even more important. If, by the time May rolls around and the fans have flocked back, this will be salvageable. If they are of a mind to punish all the principals involved in the dispute – owners and players alike – then can do so simply by tuning out. If enough disgruntled consumers find that they’ve cured themselves of the NHL habit, then the call will be easy.
Everyone’s a loser.
No one wins.