NHL could learn from baseball's labour peace | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in CanadaNHL could learn from baseball's labour peace

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2012 | 12:11 PM

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Several fans have expressed a surprising level of anger, bitterness and hatred towards the NHL labour strife. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press) Several fans have expressed a surprising level of anger, bitterness and hatred towards the NHL labour strife. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

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Only two leagues have ever cancelled their championships for labour reasons: Major League Baseball in 1994 (player strike) and, of course, the NHL in 2004-05 (owner lockout). Since MLB returned to work in 1995, it hasn't missed anything.
It is time for radio silence. From both sides.

No more tweets. No more statements. No more nothing. Don't tell us when/if you're going to meet, especially if you're not going to talk about "core economic issues."

At their Board of Governors meeting in September, there was grumbling about how the NHLPA was winning the PR battle. And, at that time, the league was getting crushed. Last week, after Don Cherry tweeted that players should stop criticizing Gary Bettman and the owners, The Toronto Sun ran a poll asking if those players should stop whining?

More than 12,000 people voted, and just under 90 per cent of them answered, "Yes." Now that the real games are being cancelled, no one cares who is right and who is wrong.

I spent time over the past couple of weeks talking to people on both sides; people who were optimistic as the 2011-12 season ended. People who believed all of this could be avoided. I was surprised at the level of anger, bitterness and hatred.

We're probably about a month or two away from really realizing how long this is going to go. But, even if this season is saved, the scars will be visible and deep. All of that anger gives Bettman and Donald Fehr plenty of ammunition to maintain hard lines. They don't care what the fans think, and, in times like this, they are both paid extremely well to ignore public pressure.

When players/executives/owners say they see this going into next season, I believe them. Right now, there is little reason to believe otherwise.

Just think about this

Only two leagues have ever cancelled their championships for labour reasons: Major League Baseball in 1994 (player strike) and, of course, the NHL in 2004-05 (owner lockout).

Since MLB returned to work in 1995, it hasn't missed anything. That means the NHL and NHLPA are heading into completely uncharted territory. There is no case study that hints at what revenues are going to look like on the other side.

Now, we've heard Bettman say that everything will be okay "because we have the world's greatest fans." But, the question I'd ask the individual players and owners -- who really have the most to lose here -- is: what if he's wrong?

Many of you are going to say, "Look at what happened the last time. Everything turned out just fine. Record revenues; record salaries. Same thing will happen."

Maybe. But everyone should look at the cautionary tale that is baseball.

The sport suffered through some real damage after 1994. (Toronto, for example, has never been the same.) Cal Ripken's Iron Man streak and a steroid-fueled home run chase helped save it, but there are some real similarities with what's happened in the NHL over the past seven years.

In 2001, commissioner Bud Selig's "Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics" indicated MLB's revenues grew 256 per cent from 1995 ($1.385 billion US) to 2001 ($3.548 billion). Despite that, Selig claimed only two teams made money during that time (Cleveland and the Yankees), while the business as a whole lost more than $1 billion.

Does any of this sound remotely familiar?

Well, a decade later, we forget how close baseball and its players came to another stoppage in 2002. The strike deadline was Aug. 30 and the mood was ugly. The only time MLB's revenues dropped post-1995 was that season, down 2.7 per cent (Source: Maury Brown's excellent Biz of Baseball blog). I was still at The Score then, covering baseball among my responsibilities. The Yankees were visiting SkyDome and player after player was getting ready for a premature vacation.

At stadiums around the majors, anger was everywhere. One fan showed up to Comerica Park with a sign that had the letters MLB representing "My Last Ballgame."

The last game was in Anaheim. As the Angels beat Tampa Bay 6-1, fans threw baseballs on the field during play and littered it with debris afterward. The Associated Press quoted television reports of 100 people being ejected for "unruly behaviour." (This is why no league or union allows a CBA to end during a season anymore.)

Seeing this carnage, both sides worked overnight to get a deal done. It was a pleasant surprise, with no games cancelled. In his media conference, Selig admitted the fans' reaction was a factor.

In the 10 years since, baseball demolished damage from its "labour disaster era" of 1981-1995. By 2010, revenues hit $7 billion and MLB just signed three new TV deals worth $12.4 billion through 2021. The playoffs are so incredibly good that you have to wonder when the devil's going to start collecting whoever sold their souls for this.

How much of that happens if there's a strike in 2002?

Back to the NHL

I understand why the players are infuriated about the threat to their already-signed contracts, especially after this summer's spending orgy. The owners aren't as enraged as the players, but it's there.

That's why, when you ask both sides where the thaw is going to come, they're not sure. There's very little common ground. They shouldn't underestimate each other's resolve. They've both proven to be capable of shutting down a season.

But, at some point, they should look at what happened in baseball. Heck, they can ask Fehr, who was there. Certainly, some of the hockey owners are buddies with their baseball brethren.

On Oct. 14, NHL fans are either angry (not good) or apathetic (worse). The NBA's fans came back after half a season was eliminated last year, so maybe that's the barometre. But that league went more than a decade without a stoppage and never missed a final.

This is four in 20 years for hockey. I asked one owner if he worries, in his other businesses, that would be too much for his customers.

"Of course you worry about that," he said. "But I believe if we put a good product out there, they will come back."

In every NHL game there must be a winner and a loser. By definition, 30 teams can't put "a good product" out there. Fourteen must miss the playoffs, and some of them are going to have horrible seasons.

What does that mean for franchises and their values, particularly in markets that are already struggling? Season-ticket money is collected for 2011-12, but there's always next year (we hope). And, how would that impact player contracts? After all, if revenues decrease, escrow losses increase.

If Bettman's right, the owners and players have nothing to worry about. If he's wrong, the damage will be much greater than what's already been lost. But, they should be wondering: why did Major League Baseball, a sport with more revenue in 2002 than the NHL has now, back away from a similar fight 10 years ago?

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