Contrary to popular belief, greed has not been the driving force behind the NHL lockout.
No. To date, it’s just been business. And in business, you exploit your position to extract the maximum profits the market will bear. You do this either by squeezing out the competition so you have free reign to raise prices, or you use leverage to drive costs out of your supply chain. There is no greed involved. It’s just math.
In fact, if greed has a role to play, it will be in saving the NHL hockey season. Here’s why…
There is little pressure on the NHL owners to end the lockout until the entire season is on the line. They went through this before in 1994, and they saw the NBA go through it last year. If you can scrape together half a season, the league as a whole will be fine. Especially since none of you took my advice and just gave up on hockey altogether. Junkies.
Anyway, the point is the NHL knows they can ride through a shortened season, but they also know very well that another cancelled season would be catastrophic. This is not 2004 when it was generally acknowledged that the system was broken, and if the NHL had to blow up the league in order to save it, so be it. This time, the lockout has been engineered by the league solely to squeeze costs out of the system, much the same way Wal-Mart squeezes it’s suppliers.
Last time it was for survival. This time it’s just business. That’s where greed comes in.
The league’s plan all along has been to maximize the pressure on the players in order to extract as many concessions as possible without having to cancel the season:
They don’t want to lose the Winter Classic. They don’t want to turn off sponsors. They don’t want to jeopardize the new revenue streams. Not based on principle or concern for the league, but because all these things mean cash. And they don’t want to go a full year without cash either.
So the key point of leverage for the owners is in late November/early December when the Winter Classic and indeed the entire season is on the line. Until then, the pressure will continue to build disproportionately on the players simply because they have more public exposure:
Unlike the owners, that are safely hidden behind Bettman and Daly, many players are out in public every day facing questions from the media, to say nothing of dealing with friends and family. They aren’t seasoned business people. Public discontent will have much greater impact on them than the likes of Ed Snider and Jeremy Jacobs.
By the way, for the Canucks, public exposure at UBC depends on the season:
But back to the owners’ ingenious plan.
In order the maximize pressure on the players, the key is to drag out the process as long as possible and ratchet up the pressure on the players along the way.
Here’s how I would do it:
1. Keep the process limping along
This means making proposals, as necessary, to make it seem as though you’re trying to move forward and reach a solution. At the very least don’t cancel another tranche of games without first making a token offer. If possible, include a plan for when the season would start, even though that is irrelevant to the CBA. You’re the good guys. Yay.
But always remember to include something in your proposal that is so extreme that it will never be accepted. The make-hole provision in that last NHL offer was a great example:
The NHL’s most recent offer made for great sound bites before anyone looked at it with a critical eye. And that’s the key to the next step:
2. Control the message
Get your viewpoint out into the media before the NHLPA has a chance to poke holes in it. If you get your story out first, the response is more likely to be seen as spin:
So get your proposal out there in public so that people with little or no context or grasp of the issues can make uninformed snap judgements. Sure, there will be some that see the right through it, but the vast majority, hungry for a solution, will laud your transparency:
When the players finally respond, dismiss their counter-proposals out of hand. The more time you take to deliberate the more legitimacy you give to their offers. So again, get out in front of the message, disparage their response and cast blame.
3. Amp up the pressure
Immediately cancel some more games after they reject or counter any of your offers; even if it’s sooner than the deadline you gave to get the season up and running again. It’s important to try and link any bad news, like cancellations of more games, with the intransigence of the NHLPA. Given that the NHL has brought in a PR firm with lots of experience in politics, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of the same strategies would be applied here. One of the most common practices when coming from behind in public opinion is to sling enough mud around that everyone gets dirty.
4. Foster dissent
The external pressure from the public will take care of itself after awhile. To really turn the screws, you might want to start creating a little internal dissent. Sure, some of that will happen on it’s own, but that takes time:
And just like the owners don’t want to get to the point of actually cancelling the season, it’s also important not to push the players so far that you get past the tipping point of just how much they’ll bend before they break:
But with that in mind, there’s nothing like a leaked memo or two to get them thinking. Again, with Luntz on board, it’s not out of the question that the NHL might be taking a concept from politics, the push poll, and applying it to a very public negotiation in order to plant a little seed:
I actually think lifting the gag order and then leaking the memo was a genius move. Evil genius, but genius nonetheless.
5. Rinse and repeat
Go back to Step 1 after a couple of weeks and do it all over again. The key is to not let the public furor die down too much. You don’t want numbness and apathy. You want drama, outrage, hope, anger, anything but apathy.
This has been the NHL gameplan from the start and they’ve executed it brilliantly. What was once a clear NHLPA advantage in public opinion has evaporated. The players are now just as likely to be blamed for the lockout as the owners in so far as blame is now apportioned jointly to both parties. Most importantly, the league has essentially coerced the players into giving up 7% or roughly $230 million PER YEAR without having to give up a single concession in return. And that’s before the full-season schedule deadline has even passed! Astounding.
So, given the success to date and the time left before the season is truly on the line, I would not be at all surprised to see another round of theatre in mid-November before the owners put a real deal on the table around Black Friday, when greed takes over.
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