Puckin' Around With Spector
by Lyle Richardson on 02/01/12 at 11:35 AM ET
When the NHL and NHLPA finally get together to open the latest round of CBA negotiations, it’ll be interesting to see what the league hopes to gain from the proceedings.
In the previous CBA negotiations, it was all about “cost certainty” for the league and the team owners, in the form of a salary cap. The owners wanted it so badly, assuring fans it was what was needed to “save” the league, they were willing to lose an entire season to achieve that goal.
Today, of course, “cost certainty” has been around since 2005. The owners got what they wanted, but in the years since “winning” the great labor war with the NHLPA, the salary cap hasn’t eradicated the problem of money-losing franchises.
Media speculation suggests the league will once again push to reduce the players’ share of revenue as a means of addressing that problem.
In 2004, the league claimed the players were getting over 75 percent of league revenues (though some independent estimates put that number closer to 64 percent), and demanded the players accept a much lower share of the pie.
The league ultimately succeeded in not only reducing the players share to 57 percent, but also implementing an escrow clause to ensure the players didn’t get a penny more.
The justification behind that drastic reduction was some teams, notably those in supposed “small markets” in Canada and the southern United States, were struggling to make ends meet, couldn’t afford to retain their best players or bid competitively for top free agent talent, and thus their very existence was threatened without some measure of “cost certainty”.
One would’ve thought a dramatic reduction of the players’ share from 75 percent down to 57 percent would’ve been enough to “save” those supposedly struggling franchises in danger of folding or relocating because they were paying too much in player salaries.
If the recent rumors about the league intending to seek another reduction in the players’ share - perhaps going with a “50-50” split, or even lower - are true, the league’s grand scheme of “cost certainty” would appear a failure.
“Cost certainty” was sold to the fans as a “cure-all” for the league’s supposed woes, that it would magically level the playing surface and make it possible for all teams to have an equal shot at becoming playoff contenders, possibly even Stanley Cup contenders.
That, however, is a myth.
Reducing the players share of revenue has not resulted in significant improvement for supposed “small market” Canadian franchises like the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.
Reducing the players share of revenue hasn’t turned the perennially moribund Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders into perennial playoff contenders.
It certainly didn’t provide the Phoenix Coyotes with stable ownership, nor did it prevent the Atlanta Thrashers from pulling up stakes and moving to the smallest market in the NHL.
Former elite franchises, like the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and Toronto Maple Leafs, certainly weren’t able to remain that way under cost certainty. The once-proud Montreal Canadiens certainly didn’t regain their long-lost Cup contending form, while the Buffalo Sabres, which looked like Cup contenders in the early years of cost certainty, weren’t able to follow up on that promise.
It didn’t help the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes successfully follow up on their respective Stanley Cup championships in 2004 and 2006, nor did it make the Minnesota Wild - located in the fabled “State of Hockey” - a franchise worth following for die-hard Minnesota hockey fans.
If the league’s intention is to further reduce the players’ share of revenue, we can likely expect the league’s selling point will, once again, be based on the supposed “necessity” to “save” most of those struggling franchises, to make it “easier” for all teams to build and maintain competitive rosters.
What the league brain trust won’t tell you is they could slash the players share of revenue back to the pittances of the Original Six days, and it still wouldn’t result in all teams having an equal chance of being competitive on an annual basis.
The reason, quite simply, has to do with what the management of each team does with their share of revenue; specifically, how they invest in their respective rosters.
Slashing the players share of revenue won’t make perennially crappy teams magically become perennial Cup contenders.
If a struggling team still has an indifferent or overbearing owner, or incompetent management and/or coaching staff, it won’t make any difference how much more of the revenue pie they’ll get, or how much players salaries are rolled back, or how much the salary cap floor and/or ceiling is reduced.
A larger percentage of revenue for the owners, a salary rollback and a lowering of the cap doesn’t matter if the folks running your crappy team are doing a lousy job. Giving them more money to play with won’t make them smarter. It won’t make the team any better. It won’t help them staunch their losses, remove the threat of relocation, or make the problem of money-losing franchises disappear.
But the league will keep trying to sell that to the fans, especially those in markets which either haven’t seen the playoffs in a number of years, or haven’t come near to the same level of success they once enjoyed under the previous CBA. Just give the team owners an even bigger share of the revenue pie, the league officials will say, and we swear that’ll make it easier for those poorly-run teams to get better.
The league will likely get what they want, largely because the players, despite having the respected Donald Fehr now running the NHLPA, probably lack the stomach for another lengthy, nasty labor war threatening to kill another season.
Fehr will get them the best deal he can, but ultimately, it’ll be one in which the players give up yet another chunk of revenue to the owners.
The question, however, is how successfully the league can sell this to a fan base largely and wilfully ignorant of labour issues, who really don’t care how revenues are distributed, so long as they don’t miss part or all of another season to a lockout or player strike.
It would be nice to assume the majority of NHL fans won’t buy into the myth, but odds are most of them will, just like they bought into the myth that “cost certainty” would magically level the playing surface for all NHL teams, without telling them the catch was based on the assumption all NHL teams would be managed with the same level of competence.
Five years from now, there will still be money-losing NHL franchises, which could finally force the league to face the fact that it can no longer squeeze the players for more revenue in order to address this problem.
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About Puckin' Around With Spector
I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.
I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.