NHL plays dangerous gambit with fans

Photo from Flickr/Garyisajoke

The cognitive dissonance of NHL labour negotiations has finally taken root.

But given that the leagues leadership group is operating out of GOP consultant Frank Luntz’s public relations playbook, perhaps it’s surprising that the tactic has taken this long to actually appear fully formed.

On Thursday night, by way of TSNs Darren Dreger, NHL Deputy Commisioner Bill Daly spooned out a dollop of napalm, and served it up as ice cream.

"We have made repeated moves in the Players' direction with absolutely no reciprocation," said Daly. 

"[U]nfortunately, we have determined we are involved with Union leadership that has no genuine interest in reaching an agreement."

Before exploring this curious assertion any further, a quick caveat/concession: Parsing words and inferring meaning at this point in the dispute is now, clearly, a pretty useless exercise — the lockout will end when it ends, and every turn before that is just calculated posturing, on both sides. Neither the NHL or NHLPA is blameless on that score. There’s a lot of shallow rhetoric and ugly theatrics flying around in this circus tent, and so Daly's comments here aren't necessarily the first dark shadows of an approaching lockout apocalypse.

But they are insightful in at least one way: they shed some light onto the basic, working assumptions of the NHLs leadership group, and their approach in general — a previously dark and mysterious philosophy. 

It would seem that the NHL is banking on fans either (a) not paying attention to the back and forth of public posturing, (b) being too stupid to follow along even if they are, or (c) being twisted into some fuzzy and misinformed contortion of both, dulling the capacity for strong opinion and financial blowback. 

Daly says the players have offered nothing in the way of reciprocation to the NHLs “repeated moves in the players direction.”

The negotiations are private, and the public statements are meaningless, but there are facts and details of the dispute which are plainly known and call Daly’s assessment easily into question.

Let's review.

The entire lockout in ten, unfairly short paragraphs

Three major battles are being waged between the NHL and NHLPA. The first is over a split in revenue sharing, the second is over fulfilling the value of current contracts, and the third is over the contract negotiating rights of players.

On the first, the players have publicly conceded to an end-game of a 50/50 split in “HRR,” hockey-related revenue. This equals a relative decrease for the players and increase for the owners.

Verdict: The players have moved to the owners position on revenue sharing, and from a percentage standpoint, the owners share improves.

Bang. Down goes Daly. Assertion invalid. That was quick. 

But let’s press on, because why not.

In the second battle between the NHL and NHLPA, the players are fighting to retain the fulfillment of current contracts. That the fight exists at all tells you where the owners stand and the nature of the issue (two minutes for instigating anyone?). And while the owners have publicly offered to “Make Whole” the value of current contracts, it’s been by way of having the players essentially make up the difference in future years with lowered earning potential. The players, for their part, have offered to mostly “Make Whole” their current contracts by gradually leveling down to a 50/50 split in HRR revenue by Year three of the next CBA — which the NHL promptly shot down as a non-starter, saying it’s 50/50 in Year One, or no deal. 

Verdict: The players are standing their ground, with some slight steps in the owners direction, on a problem defined (created?) by the owners.

On the third — contract negotiating rights — the Union has been emphatic: They’re not budging. These rights involve rules surrounding free agency, arbitration, entry level status and so forth. They empower players with some measures of control over both their careers and their earning potential.

Verdict: Daly and the NHL are probably right — the players probably aren’t willing to cooperate and “come to them” on this issue at all. And why would they? Does any aspect of the player-owner relationship seem like a cooperative partnership right now? Or does it seem adversarial? Why would one side agree to giving up negotiating rights in that kind of a relationship?

So, conclusions


NHL owners are increasing (relative to previous years) their collective share of revenues, will probably trim existing contract obligations, and are fighting to restrict the negotiating rights of players.

And don’t forget the salary cap, which will be dropping by about 12 million dollars a year in the next CBA (likely by year two).

The players, meanwhile, are decreasing their collective share of revenues, will likely lose out on portions of contracts previously negotiated in good faith, conceivably have fewer contract negotiating rights, and exist under a salary cap that requires them to earn less per year. It's unlikely the players will lose on all four of these fronts, but they won't be winning any of them either. At best, they'll retain what they already have in some areas, while making concessions in others. 

Daly and the NHL are defining a ‘lack of reciprocation’ as a ‘lack of total agreement on every premise we and we alone define.’ Which is hardly how reciprocation in a labour dispute works.

Movement is too often equated with movement “forward” — the players are willing to move off of their position but not in the way the owners want them too, which is neither right nor wrong, and certainly not a lack of reciprocation.

But the NHL doesn’t care. They’re playing out of a playbook which advances fiction, hung on the hope that we’re all not really paying attention, and the assumption that we'll all be back in droves the second the next NHL puck drops.

Maybe they're right, but so blatant a disregard for the engagement between customer and product is an insulting and a dangerous gambit. 

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