By Brandon Niles Explorebigsky.com Sports Columnist
The NFL and NBA both experienced lockouts in 2011, and when those bitter labor disputes were finally resolved, sports fans were hoping to avoid the kind of drama that comes with negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. But now, NHL fans are suffering through the same type of dispute football and basketball fans dealt with last year.
The National Hockey League officially locked out its players on Sept. 16, and last Thursday, the league announced it was canceling the first two weeks of the regular season. This cancellation will cost hockey fans 82 total games and will likely hurt the popularity of a sport that already saw nearly a 30 percent ratings drop from 2011 to 2012 for the Stanley Cup Finals.
The NHL last locked out in 2004, when the entire 2004-2005 season was cancelled. Not only did the lockout affect fans and players, but there were layoffs of team office personnel and stadium attendants. Additionally, teams lost an estimated $2 billion in revenue from tickets, media, sponsorships and concessions, according to the Borough of Labor and Statistics.
This lockout does not look to be a short one, either. Most believe the owners came out ahead in the 2005 resolution, as the players wound up conceding more in the final agreement than they would have in the agreement presented right before the season was officially cancelled. Undoubtedly, sore feelings from the last time negotiations broke down will likely be a factor in the current discussions.
While league officials and NHL Players’ Association Executive Director Donald Fehr have continued to meet, early signs have not produced the outcome hockey fans have been hoping for. All the reports indicate the league office has proposed unreasonable demands, including a nearly 20 percent decrease in player revenue share and increasing free agent eligibility from seven to ten years. While this is likely an opening offer, it would be hard not to consider it insulting from the players’ point of view.
This is disappointing. When sports are locked out, casual fans stop paying attention. The NHL and MLB strikes in the ‘90s affected the popularity of the two sports, and some say both leagues are still in the process of recovering.
It’s easy to look at professional athletes and think they make too much money. However, these players have a finite time period to make as much money as they can before their bodies break down. Theirs is a grueling lifestyle. And when players suffer serious injuries, it can cost them millions of dollars and affect them permanently. Because of this, I tend not to chastise players for trying to gain as much as they can during the limited time they have the leverage to do so.
Regardless of who is right in this debate, I question whether hockey can afford another lockout. The NFL has the popularity to weather the storm of a lockout. However, hockey does not have the ratings the NFL does, and if the owners aren’t careful, they may wind up damaging the sport for the foreseeable future.
The job of the league office is to keep the league running. Whenever a sport gets to this point, it’s a sign the league office has failed. From my perspective, hockey fans deserve better than another lockout.