On the surface of it, NBA players and NHL players have a lot in common.
They work in the same industry, at the same factory and often have the same boss. They pull the same number of shifts during the same time of year. They are all union men in what, until recently, was a thriving profession.
The gap between the two leagues in terms of audience size, earnings and global exposure is considerable and has been widening for years. But it didn’t seem to matter because, no matter how well basketball did, hockey held its own. The NHL wasn’t the big big leagues. But it was big enough.
That impression of relative equality is starting to change.
This week, the NBA started getting its amusement park ready for visitors. It had a draft, did trades and prepped for a robust (if subdued) free-agent market this weekend. Training camps open within a couple of weeks. A shortened season starts a few days before Christmas.
Most important, it has its books in order. Back in November, management and labour agreed that, for now, the players will continue to get their full salaries. If it turns out a bunch of money was lost, players will recompense owners (to a maximum of 20 per cent) with repayments spread over several years.
What kind of fiscal shape are NBA teams in? A small example: The Golden State Warriors reportedly want to acquire decent-ish forward Kelly Oubre. He can temporarily fill the hole left by future Hall of Famer Klay Thompson, who tore his right Achilles’ tendon.
Golden State is already well into the NBA’s luxury-tax penalty. The luxury tax works on a sliding scale. Add just a little more salary, owe a whole lot of tax. Add a little more salary after that and it gets ridiculous.
According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Oubre’s salary (US$14.4-million) creates a tax bill of US$68-million. So in the midst of COVID, facing a shortened season, unable to fill their new arena, the Warriors are at least seriously contemplating paying US$82.4-million for one year of a kinda-sorta-good player.
That is about what the Toronto Maple Leafs pay their entire team.
Which, as it turns out, is a handy metaphor for where the NHL finds itself right now.
The hockey season might start on Jan. 1. The ‘might’ is doing all the lifting in that sentence.
Like the NBA, the NHL and its union agreed on a new COVID-based contract a while back. Unlike the NBA, the NHL wants a re-do.
According to reports, current rates of deferral and monies held in escrow are no longer enough for the league. The NHL would like the players to take something like a 45-per-cent cumulative bite out of their 2020-21 salaries in return for playing a 60-game season.
So, three-quarters of the work for about half of the pay. The players may get some of that cash back, but – let’s be real – they’re not getting a nickel of it back.
On the one hand, were I John Tavares (to pick a player at random) and I were told, “Guess what? We’re going to pay you six-and-a-half-million bucks to fly around for a few months with a bunch of guys and play hockey,” I’d be up on my roof guzzling champagne and howling at the moon.
But if we’d previously agreed that you would give me 12 million to do the same thing, I might not be so chuffed.
And if you then told me that just a little way down the tunnel at work, in another locker room, Kyle Lowry was doing the same sort of job (minus the part about being repeatedly hit in the face with sticks and pucks) for an absolute minimum of 24 million, I might start getting angry.
This is apparently the progression NHL players have made. They aren’t happy to be offered the chance to play out a season that – given the way hockey teams make money – makes little to no sense in pure financial terms. They are instead unhappy that they aren’t being treated like NBA players.
(They’re probably also unhappy that basketball players make, on average, three times as much as they do, but that’s the problem with being rich. You only feel rich relative to the guy standing next to you. If you’re the sort of person who hangs out at yacht clubs, odds are pretty good the guy standing next to you owns a yacht.)
So while the NBA did its systems check on next season, the NHL spent this week girding itself for labour war.
Like most wars, everything about this one is stupid.
That the NHL is proposing a new contract now, rather than weeks or months ago, is stupid.
That the players apparently didn’t see this coming is stupid. Maybe they think saying so aloud makes them sound like the aggressed-upon party. What it does in fact is make them seem as collectively dim as their reputation.
That they are arguing at all about money that by contract would have sorted itself out eventually is stupid. Owners and players split hockey-related revenue 50/50. In due course, that amount will be known and the books then balanced. Why argue now about the either/or-ness of a situation that is always destined to end just one way?
Were these people nurses or dock workers, I’d get it. You need that money right now to live. But we’re talking about guys who make a minimum of 700 grand. Nobody in this fight is going to miss any meals.
Most stupid of all – the players go into this fight knowing they will lose. Because they always do.
If I worked in or around the NHL at any level – ownership, management, player, trainer, agent, towel boy – what would be front and centre in my mind is the integrity of the entire structure. If I worked as a player, I’d be thinking a lot more about continuity, togetherness and a very, very small amount of relative self-sacrifice.
Nobody is being asked to do charity here. They’re being asked to reconsider their greed in a broader context than what they stand to make in the next few months. Think instead about the next five or 10 years.
Instead of being greedy in a simple-minded way, the players ought to do what ownership does – consider greed in the long term.
Sports (and a lot other things in our society) are at an inflection point. Some will come out of the pandemic fine and continue on as they had. But some things are going to collapse. Not all at once maybe, but after 30 years of fairly steady rising, it’s about time for some falls.
Rather than worry about how the basketball Joneses down the hallway are doing, that’s what I’d be thinking if hockey was the basis of my good fortune.