Hockey media on the lockout: just whose side are they on?!

Patrick Johnston
September 11 2012 10:24AM

Slovakia vs. Russia - May 2012
These fans care. (Photo: Luciano Belviso/flickr creative commons)

The media’s coverage of the current NHL labour dispute has been, at best, cynical, frustrated but empathetic to fans. At worst, it's been pro-player . In 2004, most reporting focused on runaway salaries and the plight of weak teams. Then, though it may have been actually a lockout driven by a handful rich teams, the narrative was much more about building stability for the league; this time, it’s much clearer that the narrative matches the reality. Then, it was saving the game for weak taems (while ignoring the massive profits that would be predictably reaped by the top tier of clubs); now it's simply about protecting the bottom line.

The players being millionaires makes the whole thing hard to swallow. Millionaires versus billionaires, seriously who are you supposed to pick?

Choosing sides is a tough act

In a league that has grown its revenue 33% since 2005, how else can we explain it? As the National Post's Bruce Arthur explained this week, it’s about money, money, money.

The mere threat of a lockout shows the owners have little care for fans, argues Arthur.

This isn’t about you. The owners want more money, and the players don’t want to give it to them, and the people whose love of the game generated that money in the first place are afterthoughts. Hockey knows that people live through the absence of hockey, ol’ Archie perhaps excepted. He was right, too; they were skunks then, and they are skunks now, at least when it comes to caring about the people who make them what they are. It’s not that they don’t care if you die, precisely. It’s that they only care if you come back.

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the players’ position I suppose but he also takes time to point out the owners don't exactly come across as honest.

That is the sad part of this latest pending lockout, whose prime actors this time are Bettman and NHLPA president Don Fehr. The fans don’t matter. There are attempts to win the public-relations war, sure; this week it was leaked to RDS that the league had lost US$240-million over the past two years, which if it was strictly speaking true probably would have come up earlier in the negotiations, rather than a week and a half before the CBA expired.

The billionaire/millionaire battle is hard to swallow, but it's hard not to think the players are at least more honest about their position.

Massive revenues, built in a 'partnership'

Adrian Dater has more cynicism for us:

Despite record revenues ($3.3 billion, a 33 percent increase from 2005-06), a 10-year TV deal worth approximately $2 billion with the NBC Network for U.S. broadcasts, money-printing innovations such as the Winter Classic and its HBO 24/7 lead-in series, and all the "cost certainties" that team owners got after the last lockout, here we are again talking about another delayed or completely lost season.

The "partnership" with the players that Commissioner Gary Bettman once trumpeted as working "for everybody...most importantly for our fans" now needs change. Player costs are too high, he said on behalf of the owners whose initial CBA offer was tone-deaf at best and Draconian at worst.

Peachy, isn’t it. What’s worse, consider how those revenues are generated. The owners are squabbling about how to divide a pie that is largely filled from the pockets of Canadians. In January, the Toronto Star revealed numbers that showed that in 2010-11, the six Canadian teams generated a third of the NHL's overall ticket revenues. Do some more math, and you quickly realize that the league's engine is in Canada - most of the league's merchandising revenues are generated in Canada, and while the NBC contract is huge, so are the Canadian TV deals, which, of course, focus on less than a third of the league's teams.

Bruce Dowbiggin gives a hint to just how big the pile generated by the seven Canadian teams is, a deal that effectively subsidizes the weaker American cousins: 

When a team’s games are included on Hockey Night in Canada or NBC’s national package in the United States, the Canadian team receives an equal 1/30th share of the revenues from those games. Allowed to sell their games in regional packages, however, teams are able to collect almost all of the revenues from their games, a better deal.

The Leafs give up as many as 40 dates a seson to national programming, the Canucks give up 25. That’s a lot of dough they could otherwise keep for themselves.

Profitable U.S. teams such as the Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers or Chicago Blackhawks might not surrender in three years the number of national games Toronto or Vancouver give up in a single season. They retain the bulk of their TV inventory and can sell it themselves to regional outlets.

It puts the concept of revenue sharing on its head – the TV pie is uneven, and actually benefits many teams who wouldn’t otherwise have benefitted. No wonder the rich teams apparently don't want to talk about putting more money into the collective pot, even if that's what the players want to do.

What is hockey, anyway?

And here’s the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples, who, in between complaints that the Oilers don’t have a chance in the NHL, suggests to us all that the NHL isn’t the only hockey around. The first point is rather disingenous - the Oilers are highly profitable, even if their owner says otherwise; they are just badly managed, that's all. The second point I can get behind, though.

This is a fight between two immensely wealthy groups over revenues. An agreement that favours the owners might help my favourite team, the Edmonton Oilers, to ice a more competitive team, but for the time being, the Oilers appear to be making enough money to compete for top talent. As a result, I have no interest or strong feelings about the labour dispute.

I do, however, take issue with the pathetic notion that there’s no hockey without the NHL.

Being a spectator of the elite NHL game is a form of participation in hockey, but it’s a small, superficial form.

Realistically, hockey fans want what’s easy. That’s the NHL. It’s on all the time, we are familiar with it, it’s the best. Sadly, despite all the present frustration and anger, most will flock back to the NHL, lockout or not. It doesn’t have to be so, there are fantastic alternatives out there. 

Ron MacLean, from out the blue

All this makes Ron MacLean’s totally bizarre blog post last week just, so, well, bizarre.

In a long ramble at CBC.ca, MacLean declares that there won’t be a lockout, gives a rehash of the argument, but never suggests just why there won’t be a lockout. He’s playing to the fans, to a point, trying to placate us in a ‘don’t worry, it’ll all work out’-sort-of-way. 

His recollection of the 2004-05 lockout shows pretty clearly who he thinks was in the right:

Seven years ago, the owners held a powerful upper hand. And more important, the issues were different. Gary Bettman wisely hired Arthur Levitt, the former Chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to produce an audit showing the NHL lost $232 million US in 2003-04. 

That gave Bettman public support and believability. The owners were told by their agent, the NHL commissioner, that they could gain $1 billion with a new CBA and they certainly faced the prospect of losing money if they ran a season. It was an easy decision to shut down.

MacLean seems to blame the agents for splitting up the union in 2005, and in the end argues that the owners are making too much money for them to really consider shutting down. 

Times have changed. The owners face losing 7.1 per cent revenue growth and the profits that entails. 

I want to thank Rod Fort, economics professor at University of Michigan, as always for his guiding hand in dissecting the game we're in. As Fort points out, Fehr has been in precisely this position many times at the MLBPA. Every time the PA stood its ground, there was never a lockout. The wildcard would be player solidarity. Fehr will keep them in check, and Bettman will make a deal. 

Uh, what? Player solidarity will actually stop a lockout? You've lost me, Ron.

What can be taken from MacLean's all over the place piece is that nothing is clear. There likely willl be a lockout, but then again, maybe there won't be.

The media has been clearly in the fans' camp, lamenting the great corporate mess that hockey has become. The owners ohld all the power, the fans are the one who suffer. Of course, they also acknowledge that the fans will be back in droves, whether there's a lockout or not.

It's all a bitter pill.

 

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Patrick Johnston is a Vancouver journalist. In addition to regular contributions here at Canucks Army, his work has appeared in The Province, Hockey Now and on the CBC. Check out his blog and other writing at http://johnstonwrites.wordpress.com or follow him on twitter: @risingaction
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#1 mofans
September 11 2012, 10:54AM
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Why the Emphasis on the Players salaries?? Look at what other Sports pay their Players . I don't believe the salaries are any of the Fans concern.People drink Coke, they pay whatever, because they like Coke. The Negotiations are between the NHL and the players, their trip. As a Fan,my choice is either to buy or NOT buy a Ticket.Period. I WISH for a Hockey Season, fervently.I support the Players, fiercely, because I Love the Game, and the Guys who Play it. GO CANUCKS !!

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#2 KleptoKlown
September 11 2012, 04:08PM
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I bought my first knock-off jersey last week and actually felt justified.

3 lockouts and a strike over a 20 year period speaks volumes of the piss poor job that is being done by those who run things.

I for one hope the fans stop coming to games, stop buying merchandise and internet subscriptions. We're the cash cows here, it's up to us to speak with our dollars, it's the only language these people speak.

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#3 Colin
September 12 2012, 09:53AM
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I've posted a similar thought to what I'm about to post on FN, but I thought I'd post it here.

If there isn't anyone who is pro-player in this negotiation, you are an idiot. If you think taking 24% from the players is gonna somehow relate to cheaper viewing of Hockey I have a Bridge to sell you. If you are one of those fans that constantly scream that players are overpaid and shouldn't make millions to play a game they love, where should that money go? To even wealthier owners? Who are NOT gonna to reduce ticket prices, concessions, or merch, but probably are going to increase those to make even more money? These owners don't even want to change revenue sharing to help each other out, they all want more money themselves, they don't even care if the owners of Nashville or Columbus lose tens of millions of dollars, as long as their own club makes them millions.

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