Issues on ice

By Lindsey Woods

Sports fans are being served a tall glass of déjà vu—on ice. The NHL is now officially past its Sept. 15 lockout deadline, meaning the ghost of the lost 2004–2005 season is starting to haunt the nightmares of hockey fans.

Negotiations have been slow thus far, and sports sources are not-so-subtly hinting that this lockout may last. The NHL and its Players’ Association have had only a few formal meetings, none of which have yielded valid offers.

“I would be surprised if they lost an entire season,” said Mike Colligan, NHL analyst at Forbes SportsMoney. “I think we’re at least looking [at] three months, into December. There’s the big Winter Classic [on Jan. 1, 2013], which is kind of their national event on NBC, and I think the [press] from cancelling that could be a little negative.”

Contract details aside, Colligan noted several key differences between the 2004–2005 lockout and the situation this year. The first major difference, he said, is TV rights.

During the last lockout, the NHL’s five-year, $600 million TV deal with ESPN was ending, and the league had a lot at stake in terms of negotiating a new contract. Last year, the NHL signed a 10-year TV rights deal with NBC worth approximately $2 billion, meaning the league has to worry less about losing money this year. Colligan speculated that this may also be a factor in the absence of lockout news in mainstream media.

“ESPN pretty much decides what’s relevant and what isn’t in sports,” he said. “If [a] sport isn’t on their radar, which hockey isn’t because the NHL signed a deal with NBC, they kind of ignore it. It’s not on SportsCenter. It’s not on their website, so I think when the casual sports fan hops over to one of those, it’s not even mentioned in passing a lot of times.”

The financial structure of the NHL is another big factor in the lockout, Colligan said. The league has a handful of profitable teams, such as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers, but the rest are losing money.

This component creates a divide between the “have” and “have-not” teams that could benefit the NHLPA at the negotiating table.

“You’ve got this small, centralized number of teams that are making all your money, and I think they’re going to push to redistribute [the money] amongst the rest of the league,” Colligan said. “And obviously those teams aren’t going to give it up easily. It’s going to be

a challenge.”

The haves and have-nots system that exists in hockey may also yield an unexpected consequence—a longer lockout. Teams losing money may have incentive to extend the lockout because if they’re not playing, they’re not in the red,

Colligan said.

“That’s the scary thing,” he said. “You’ve got these teams that can benefit from a longer lockout in order to get the new system that addresses their problems. If the players are really going to hold their own and you’ve got this big divide, it could stretch for a while.”

Not unlike players during 2011 NBA lockout, NHL players have already started scouting other leagues to protect their pockets, according to Monique Maye, an assistant professor in the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department who teaches the Entertainment Law class.

“[The players] can go and make just as much money and sometimes even more to play internationally, and that’s what [is] starting to happen in this lockout,” she said. “If they see a way out and an opportunity to play the game they love in another country, sometimes in the countries they are from, then they’re going to do that.”

The American Hockey League and the international Kontinental Hockey League are just two of the programs players have their

eyes on.

In addition, the Players’ Association has new representation in Donald Fehr this season, while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is the same man who locked out the league in 2005. Different negotiators and situations surrounding the lockout aren’t the only factors that separate it from the one in 2005. There are several key points the league and players are fighting about, which are

outlined below.

GRAPHIC:

The issues:

Defining league revenues: There is a lot of money coming from numerous sources—ticket sales, costs of doing business and relocation fees—that go into professional sports and defining how money should be split is a big deal.

The revenue split: In the previous deal, players received the bigger share, 57 percent, compared to the owners’ 43 percent. The extensive growth the league has seen in recent years means the owners have changed their minds and want something to the tune of a 50/50 split.

Players’ contracts: General managers are presenting players with 10- to 15-year contracts knowing they’ll be someone else’s problem down the road. It hurts both parties, but mostly the owners. Players are getting paid either way, so the owners want shorter terms of “ownership” of players.

What the NHL wants:

• Poor-performing teams want a decrease in salary spending. Right now, the minimum a team can spend is $54 million. They don’t make a lot of money, so they need assistance from more prosperous teams, which will help everyone.

• The owners are trying to change the revenue split. Their share is currently 43 percent, but they are seeking around 57 percent.

• They want the contract limit for players to be set at five years.

What the NHLPA wants:

• The players want a clear definition of what is considered league revenue. When the commissioner relocated the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, owners pocketed $60 million, according to the NHLPA. The players never received any of this money, and they think they have a stake in that, not to mention the huge broadcast deal signed with NBC.

• The NHLPA wants to make sure players get a fair cut of the hockey revenue pie. That means not allowing the league the 50/50 split they’re looking for.

• Fehr is going to argue that increased revenue sharing among teams may fix the wide gap between teams with and without money. The problem is, rich teams will be reluctant to give up their cash.

Donald Fehr,

NHLPA boss

The Players’ Association hired Fehr in 2011 as their full-time union head. He is said to be an intellectual match for Bettman and will most likely keep this season’s ice from melting.

Gary Bettman,

NHL commissioner

He was responsible for cancelling the entire 2004–2005 season and said he could do it again if a new deal is not struck in the NHL owners’ favor for the 2012–2013 season. The entire deal is really in this man’s hands.

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