Kukla's Korner

Puckin' Around With Spector

Forecasting the PR Strategies for “NHL CBA 2012”.

With the NHL formally serving notice last week to the NHLPA of its desire to “terminate and/or modify” the current collective bargaining agreement by September 15th, hockey fans know for certain another potentially contentious round of labor negotiations will begin soon.

Given the toxic atmosphere between the two sides during previous CBA talks, there’s concern among some pundits, bloggers and fans that there could be yet another lengthy lockout.

Speculation has been brewing for months over what the league could seek (another reduction in players’ revenue share, lowering of the salary cap, salary rollbacks) and possible reaction/counter-proposals from the PA. We probably won’t know the official positions of both sides until mid-summer.

In the meantime, the only certainty is the league, led by commissioner Gary Bettman and his trusty team of labor negotiators, will be calling the tune for this dance, as they always have. It is anyone’s guess which side could emerge victorious, and as history has shown, those which claim victory in these labor squabbles often find it costly.

It’ll be interesting to see if the league employs the same public relations strategy as it did during the previous two lockouts, painting the NHLPA leadership, the players and their agents as the bad guys.

Since it worked so well in the past, it wouldn’t be surprising if the league resorts to that playbook again.

In 2004, the NHL had won the PR battle before the labor war truly began.

One of its best weapons was the “NHL CBA News” section on the league website. It was devoted to telling the league’s side of the negotiations, painting Bettman and the team owners as reasonable men working solely for “the good of the game”, while blithely dismissing any PA recommendations as unworkable.

The league could also count on sycophants in the mainstream media regularly painting the PA leadership and players as stubborn greed-heads out to kill the golden goose.

Commissioner Bettman and his lieutenant Bill Daly regularly appeared in interviews, commiserated with angry fans while assuring them locking out the players was necessary to save the NHL from certain financial disaster.

Of course, they didn’t tell the fans the owners and their general managers were responsible for much of those problems, and the league’s pursuit of “cost certainty” was an attempt to save the owners and GMs from themselves.

It didn’t matter, as the league’s public relations campaign was a huge success in swinging fan support to their side.

The PA, by contrast, offered up little to counter the league’s public relations juggernaut.

Perhaps the leadership at the time underestimated how the league would come at them. Maybe they simply didn’t care enough to get their side of the story out to the fans, didn’t believe it was that important, or felt they simply couldn’t compete with the league’s all-out PR blitz.

Whatever the reason, the PA’s tepid response played into the league’s hands. Polls conducted throughout the lockout period regularly indicated the fans supported the league’s position, often by wide margins.

When the league announced in February 2005 it was suspending the 2004-05 season, fans were furious with both sides, but it was the PA and its “greedy” membership which bore the brunt.

The league will probably crank up another PR blitz this time around, but it remains to be seen what reaction – if any – there will be from the players and its new PA leadership.

Bettman and company will probably suggest the current system is fine for the most part (since, after all, it was their baby), but needs necessary adjustments for financially struggling teams to survive.

If those adjustments are in the form of more concessions from the players, expect a PR onslaught by the league to support it.

The talking points will indicate how well the players are making out under the current system, how they’re among the best-compensated athletes in North American pro sports, and can easily afford further concessions without an adverse effect upon their lifestyles.

Of course, there will also be the threat – subtle as well as obvious - of contracting cash-poor franchises and loss of jobs if the players refuse to meet the league’s “reasonable” demands.

The PA will likely counter they’ve already given back plenty, having agreed to a restrictive, multi-tiered salary cap system, a 24 percent salary rollback, and the quarterly, fluctuating escrow deductions.

Indeed, NHLPA special council Steve Fehr - speaking on behalf of his brother Donald, the PA executive director - already indicated the players could be unwilling to accept further give-backs, preferring instead to seek other means to address the problematic issues.

They could suggest some form of improved revenue sharing (perhaps a luxury tax on free-spending teams?) to bolster the finances of struggling franchises without shaving away more of the players’ share of revenue.

If the league goes the “demonize the players” route again, it might not be as effective as in 2004.

The league sold the current CBA, with its restrictive salary cap system, as the “cure-all” for its woes. It was supposed to “level the playing surface” by bringing parity to the league, while ensuring all teams could afford to ice competitive rosters.

Instead, it merely perpetuated the dichotomy between the NHL’s richest and poorest franchises.

The league cannot even point to this system as saving once-struggling Canadian-based teams, as the improvement in the value of the Canadian dollar was responsible for that.

It could be potentially awkward explaining how a system championed by Bettman and the team owners seven years ago, which they were willing to sacrifice an entire season to implement, failed to achieve the desired goal of cost certainty.

In other words: Mr. Commissioner, you’ve got some explaining to do.

The prevalence of hockey bloggers could also work against the league’s PR campaign.

Hockey blogging was in its infancy in the fall of 2004, but grew significantly during the lockout as fans turned to blogs to vent their frustration. A number of today’s successful blogs (like Kukla’s Korner) can trace their roots back to the lockout.

Many hockey bloggers have strong opinions of their own and have no problem taking the league, PA or the mainstream media to task.

If the league attempts to trot out a new, improved version of “NHL CBA News”, it will be scrutinized and dissected by bloggers, who’ll wish to keep the league honest by pointing out flaws in its logic. The same goes for any potential web campaign by the PA.

While some might dismiss the influence of hockey bloggers upon CBA negotiations, it must be remembered they are the true representatives of the fans. It would be a mistake for the NHL and NHLPA to ignore them. If either side is smart, they’ll try to recruit the more influential bloggers to make their respective cases to the fans.

Hockey fans are more cynical and better informed than they were during the last two lockouts. While many will be indifferent to the negotiations, a significant number could make their voices heard this time around, making the propaganda war for both sides a more difficult exercise than in years past.

Filed in: | Puckin' Around With Spector | Permalink
  Tags: bettman, cba, nhl, nhlpa, pr


Nathan's avatar

Great post. My hope is that with Fehr at the helm as someone who has been through this numerous times—and succeeded—the players will be more organized and visible to the fans during the summer as negotiations progress. That really hurt them in ‘04, perhaps even more than the hard PR press from the league… it was almost seemingly impossible to hear NHL players speaking openly, honestly, but calmly and collected about the process.

Another thing that is a real game-changer for the players is that, even if as a full union they still struggle to push out cohesive PR messages, Twitter is here to save the day. In ‘04, Twitter didn’t exist. As of 2012, Twitter is now the main way in which the players communicate with their fans and provide some “direct access” to us. Every night this season on NHL Network, the crawl has been littered with dozens and dozens of tweets from active players, including many star players, commenting on their latest big win, tough loss, or even on the excitement of games they watched on their off day, etc. I think that through Twitter, even without a cohesive fan communication strategy at the union level, the players will be able to build far more public support for their side of the negotiations than in ‘04.

Posted by Nathan from wasting perfect passes from my teammates on 05/23/12 at 04:32 PM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

Glad you enjoyed the post, Nathan, and excellent point about Twitter. If the PA leadership is smart, they won’t attempt to muzzle their players and allow them to speak to the fans through Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 05/23/12 at 05:17 PM ET

Faux Rumors's avatar

1) Not sure what leverage the NHLPA has.  I don’t think its as much a PR battle as it is a battle of attrition. Are the players wiling to lose money to save a few % points on the salary cap? If they caved to impliment a cap, why should we expect they’ll be more resolute now?
2) Especially with the recent NFL/NBA setlements the owners have to smell blood in the water. Fehr can point to baseball all he wants, but he’s 8 years too late. The NHLPA needed his leadership the last CBA.  Now its going to be merely a matter of how much the players are forced to give up. My guess it’ll be an even 50:50 split

Posted by Faux Rumors from Globally- Here, there, Everywhere on 06/05/12 at 04:04 PM ET

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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.