Two things I love the most in the world, besides my family and fiancee, are hockey and progressive politics. Generally, besides Sean Avery cutting an ad for marriage equality, or the great work being done by the You Can Play Project, these two interests do not intersect. But as the NHL lockout stretches into the new year, my political demons have been awakened.
First, a little history. 8 years ago, the owners locked out the players for an entire season. April and May felt very empty without the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and I feared that hockey may never recover. During the Summer of 2005, the players pretty much gave everything to the owners to get a deal. They agreed to a salary cap, which they had previously said they would not agree to under any circumstances. The NHL owners' cruel persistence paid off. Hockey came back, and amazingly, it came back stronger than ever. The league instituted new rules that opened up the game. They eliminated ties, and cracked down on the neutral zone trap (non-hockey fans, don't ask) that had bogged the game down in previous years. The NHL created the Winter Classic, an outdoors New Years Event that has drawn high TV ratings and rave reviews. The reality program 24/7 on HBO, which gave a behind-the-scenes take on the Winter Classic teams was superb television, and attracted non-hockey fans to the game. Ultimately, the Salary Cap seemed to work. In the 8 post-lockout seasons, there have been 8 different Stanley Cup champions, including ones from Raleigh, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles (sadly none from my underachieving San Jose Sharks). The sport's questionable TV contract with the Versus network (now NBC Sports) even seemed to play dividends. The NHL had an American network committed to showing national games several days a week, and the league had put the network on the map.
Off the ice, the NHL was making lots of money. They used that money to dole out some ridiculous contracts. Defenseman Shea Weber, a good, but relatively unproven player, was offered $110 million over ten years by the Philadelphia Flyers, and the offer was matched by the small market Nashville Predators. This happened this past summer in July. By September, the previous CBA was due to expire. Even though the NHL had cancelled a season eight years ago to get pretty much everything it wanted, it threatened to lock the players out again. When the clock struck midnight on September 15th, the lockout began.
The owners were angry that the players were getting 57% of "hockey related revenue." (HRR). So they proposed that instead, the players take 43% of the revenue. Yes, the very owners doling out $110 million over 14 years, were saying that the players were making too much money. These same owners, the ones giving out 14 year contracts, wanted to limit all contracts to 5 years, and wanted to lock in this owner-friendly system for 10 years. The players rejected this offer, but have so far agreed to reduce their portion of HRR to 50%, have agreed to an 8-year CBA, and 8-year contracts. The NHL has offered the players $300 million to cover preexisting player contracts.
Even with massive concessions from the NHLPA, the NHL has thus far cancelled half the season, and the league has lost an estimated $20 million per day. But here's the thing: the owner's don't really care about losing this money. They're billionaires, and mostly make money through non-hockey ventures. The players are losing about $8-10 million per day. These guys don't have other sources of income. Many players have played in Europe, but many of them are starting to get desperate for a pay check. The owners know this full well, and that's why they're doing everything they can to extract every last dollar from the player's pockets.
So how does this have to do with progressive politics? I know it's hard to sympathize with millionaire players, but what the NHL players are going through is part of a systematic problem for American workers. Players are the ones making the product. They're the reason fans put their butts in the seats. They're the ones that are marketable. But the owners, just like the "job creators" in the rest of the market, have figured out that the players eventually will be desperate enough to work for less. It's no skin off the owners' backs, just as it is no skin off the backs of the Bain Capital-types negotiating collective bargaining contracts. The owners hold all the cards, and with unions weakening dramatically over the past 30 years, especially in the private sector, owners almost always hold the cards. As a result, workers take-home pay has steadily declined in real terms, even though their productivity has increased.
I suppose my interest in labor-manager relations should have been piqued during other disputes, perhaps those that don't involve millionaire workers. But I don't sit by idly every night waiting to watch the auto assembly line. I want to watch hockey again, and I hate to see the "job creator" class ruining something in a realm I thought they couldn't touch.