If last week’s brief labor negotiations accomplished anything it was to make perfectly clear why the league appears headed for a lockout that will delay training camp quite possibly impact the regular season.
That was transparent in two statements by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
The first made it clear that the issue is all about driving down players’ salaries: “We believe that we’re paying out more than we should be, and it’s as simple as that,” Bettman said after the latest bargaining session Thursday.
The first response that comes to mind is was anyone holding the Minnesota Wild at gunpoint when they agree Zach Parise and Ryan Suter this summer for $98 million over 13 years – that’s apiece, not combined.
Notice that Bettman said nothing about a need to suppress salaries. The league’s annual revenue has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion since the last owners lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season.
Players’ average salaries have gone from $1.45-million to $2.45-million during that time. Players now get 57 percent of the revenue pie. Owners have proposed cutting that to 43 percent, while the union has offered 54 percent.
Logic would say, make it 50-50 and let’s drop the puck before the dispute turns contentious. But Bettman’s remarks make it clear that owners are not afraid to drop the gloves and see how far they can take the fight.
The reason is the league essentially regards fans as stooges who will come back as they did after the lost season.
“We recovered well last time because we have the world’s greatest fans,” Bettman also said Thursday.
Fans tend to side with management in these sports labor disputes, and they always end up being stooges in the process. NHL owners are counting on that with a position that speaks not only of greed but arrogance.
They may get away with it in the league’s prime markets. But in regions where hockey is a tough sell, and the over-expanded NHL has a number of them including South Florida, it is a risky stance that calls into question the league’s commitment to success in non-traditional markets.