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  (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)


(Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)

More on the NHL lockout as a 'Popsicle game' Add to ...

With apologies to my colleague Sean Gordon, I can't help but barge in on his fine piece about how the NHL lockout is a Popsicle game.

The term is compliments of Rodney Fort, an economics professor at the University of Michigan and a sports business expert. He told Mr. Gordon today's collective bargaining in sports is like two kids arguing over how to divide a Popsicle. If no one intervenes, according to Fort, the kids soon figure out how to do it.

“They’ll usually just break it in half,” he said. “They understand that if it melts while they argue about it, no one gets any. Now the NHL and the NHLPA are going to let the Popsicle melt a little.”

Where I'd like to pick up the discussion is just what is melting for each side. For the players, it is the same thing that gives the owners the advantage in every contract fight since the first person paid someone else to toss a ball or fire an arrow for amusement.

Athletes only have so many years when they can compete at the major-league level. At some point in their mid to late 30s for the most part, or into their 40s for a lucky few, no matter how hard they work on conditioning, their major-league skills, the ones that separate them from the thousands of athletes at the next level down the sporting totem pole, evaporate.

Throw in the constant competition from younger athletes brought in to challenge for their jobs and a professional athlete knows he has somewhere between five and 10 years, unless his name is Gretzky or Lemieux, to capture those million-dollar contracts.

This, of course, is a tremendous advantage for the owners when they close up shop in a labour dispute. They do it because they know sooner or later, if they are prepared to blow off a season, the pressure of losing a year in a brief career will become hard to bear.

But there are some pressure points on the owners, too. For the rich ones like the Toronto Maple Leafs, it will be seeing $2-million in ticket sales disappear starting Thursday when the 2012-13 regular season was supposed to open.

There are also sponsors and other business partners to consider. Those who just signed on to plaster their logo over all things NHL cannot be happy when there is nothing going on. Their displeasure can be assumed to be in proportion to the amount they paid in sponsor fees even if compensation of some sort is built in.

One business partner to watch is NBC. This is supposed to be the first year of the network's 10-year, $2-billion (U.S.) contract with the NHL. The plan is to launch the NBC coverage on the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend but at this point that is unlikely.

The deal does call for NBC to pay the NHL in full for this season even if the lockout wipes it out, with another year added on the back end of the contract. But if I'm a television executive who has mapped out a year-long schedule with the requisite promotions, a lockout makes me very, very unhappy.

It will be worth keeping an eye on NBC as this drags along, since it's reasonable to assume that at some point the people who write cheques for $200-million (U.S.) per year will start putting heat on the NHL owners to get back to work.

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