NHL CBA negotiations about money but also power

Published On July 20, 2012 | By Zoë Hayden

NHL owners and players are debating the creation of a new collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Association this summer, but no one knows what happens next. The waters were murky heading into negotiations. Animosity seemed apparent, though early reports characterized the negotiations as cordial and calm. When details started to leak, however, it was much more curious and outlandish than even the naysayers had assumed.

There are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about the negotiations, the first of which being that these are millionaires and billionaires trying to determine how many millions and billions they should get, and how. The terms are utterly incomprehensible to the average fan.  We’d all be happy to settle for even a small percentage of a billion-dollar enterprise.

But the logistics of pro sports collective bargaining agreements defy our own expectations.  We have to extrapolate a bit.  The fact that the NHL wants to cut the portion of team revenue that goes to the players obviously looks bad from the players’ standpoint because it means less money for the players.

However, it also potentially reduces the salary cap below its current seemingly-astronomical, if “temporary”, $70.2 million. This will help keep teams competitive, even when they make less money. Remember: despite the same salary cap, the Phoenix Coyotes may never make the same amount of revenue as the Montréal Canadiens. If we’re thinking in millions and billions, we have to think of lesser amounts in that realm as well.

The second thing to keep in mind is that no amount of money can buy happiness. Take the owners’ series of slights to the players’ side in early talks:

  • 10 seasons contracted in the NHL before being able to reach unrestricted free agency
  • a five-year limit on all contracts
  • no salary arbitration for restricted free agents

Regardless of how much money a player is given, he could theoretically be locked in to the same team for a decade of his life with limited ability to get out of a bad situation. If he finds himself demoralized and boxed in on a losing team, if he finds his role doesn’t match up with his expectations for himself, if he needs to develop his abilities by being granted more ice time–none of these situations provide options that fully exercise the players‘ ability to choose.

The only “out” seems to be a trade, or a competing offer sheet as a restricted free agent.  We are currently seeing a version of this scenario play out for the Nashville Predators’ Shea Weber, who has signed short contracts throughout his career and remains limited by his restricted free agent status. But Nashville stands a chance of keeping Weber around longer because of the RFA limitations. It’s good for Nashville as a franchise, and good for their revenue to keep marquee players on the ice every night. Still, whether or not it’s good for Weber is, well, up to Weber.

As fans and not businesspeople, it’s easy for us to say that NHL players and owners should compromise. The salary cap should be adjusted to accommodate for every franchise–the little guys as well as the huge markets. This would stop smaller franchises offering exorbitantly large contracts to players of limited skill in a panic to reach the salary floor.  Contract limitations would be great–but somewhere in between five and 10 years seems reasonable, don’t you think?  What about limiting signing bonuses to be a little less ridiculous?  What about keeping RFA/UFA status rules as they are?

But no–it’s a business. Not just that, but the NHL seems to be a fundamentally broken business, reliant on a few huge-market franchises and big name players to draw most of their revenue. They have also kept the league in business with a collective bargaining agreement since 2005 that perpetuates many of the parity problems it attempted to solve, except in sneakier and more stubborn ways.

And oh hey, does anyone remember that ridiculous realignment proposal?  The NHLPA shot that down as well, for similar reasons–it was catering to the Big Guys’ bank accounts at the expense of the game, creating matchups for television hype purposes rather than actual athletic competition. While realignment reeked of snake oil, it came from the same business sensibility that while not sinister, was at the very least misguided.

Player restrictions probably won’t ultimately help parity, but it will keep the owners making money. And, as we’ve learned from the past several seasons, parity isn’t always great. The greatest result of parity might come from tragic injuries to talented players, or from the huge contracts that the league is trying to stop–the ones that are bringing franchise players to small markets at well above their sticker price and longevity potential. Players that will sell tickets. See, when we say “parity” we mean the on-ice product.  The owners generally mean market success and profit.

We would like to think that as long as everyone plays well and plays fair that the league will succeed. But the products here are people, and they’re not exactly malleable to the desires of a big business that caters not to fans and players, but to other big businesses.  The NHL is, on paper, a not-for-profit organization that can look after its associated parts in a custodial manner. In practice, the millions and billions being discussed at the CBA negotiations allow not just for custodial oversight, but for a woeful degree of control and pandering.

CBA negotiations are a convoluted power play that could possibly cause a lockout of the 2012-13 NHL season–not just monetary greed.

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About The Author

Zoë Hayden is a 22-year-old writer from Hopwood, Pennsylvania currently living in Boston. She is a graduate of Emerson College and enjoys covering hockey, international sports tournaments, technology, history, science, and gender issues. You can find her on Twitter: @zoeclaire_