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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Winter of hockey's discontent

NHL owners, players settle in for lockout that threatens to cancel season

Posted: Tuesday September 21, 2004 3:57PM; Updated: Tuesday September 21, 2004 3:57PM
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  Gary Bettman
After wacthing his league squander its rising popularity in 1994, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman now may watch his league squander its existence.
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Not to alarm you sports fans, but judging from the muscles being flexed on both sides of the National Hockey League's labor dispute, the 2004-05 season is about as good as trashed.

This promises to be an impasse for the ages. See, in the long history of labor disputes, no sports league has ever lost a full season to a work stoppage -- or a lockout, if you listne to the players' union -- probably because none have been as radioactive a mess as the hockey owners and players are sitting on.

By all accounts, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners are prepared to wait until hell freezes over -- or perhaps until their $300 million lockout fund runs dry -- in a determined bid to overhaul the game's economic system, which certainly could use a tweak or two. The owners would have us believe two-thirds of the clubs would lose money if the season were to be played under the current structure. Nice incentive to negotiate, eh?

It's no surprise that the players prefer keeping the system as is. As the two sides have been haggling over the issue for a few seasons, we can only assume that the players have also been setting aside a few bucks for this day, too. A fair number might also wait out the stoppage by playing in Europe or upstart North American leagues, if need be. Many current players got their start overseas, so playing again for their native countries wouldn't be such a stretch, unlike say, the option facing NFL or Major League Baseball players facing the same scenario.

Again, can anybody say: See you next season?

Maybe putting a match to the NHL as we know it isn't such a horrible idea, anyway. Consider what we have now. A black sheep league that has overexpanded and maneuvered itself into paying player salaries far beyond its means. (The average player makes $1.8 million a year, or about what baseball pays promising young talent such as Josh Beckett and Rafael Furcal.) And if you take the owners at their word, which is always dicey in these kinds of squabbles, the league is hemorrhaging cash -- dropping close to $2 billion over the past decade. That may help explain why two franchises (Buffalo and Ottawa) have filed for bankruptcy in the past year.

Perhaps most telling -- and damaging to the financial future of both sides -- is that the league has no guaranteed TV money to speak of, having been left no better option than a revenue-sharing arrangement with NBC. This is the take-it-or-leave-it stuff of lower-tier sporting ventures like Arena Football get. Even the old TV deal -- $600 million over five years -- was chump change in the shadow of the NFL's $17.6 billion over eight seasons.

How in the world did the NHL get here? In 1994, Sports Illustrated spent considerable space, after the playoffs in which the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940, extolling the upbeat fortunes of the game. The NHL was hot, the NBA was not, we were told. Hockey was the marketing rage. The Mighty Ducks, backed by Disney magic, had the top-selling logo in team sports. Inroads were being made in the Sun Belt, and more expansion was on the drawing board.

The story was right on the mark at the time. But don't blame the SI jinx for this decline. Rather, the league -- ownership and players, alike -- couldn't settle their differences and a lockout eating up half of the '94-95 season killed any momentum and goodwill. That may be the simple explanation, but it's a fair start.

"They killed the golden goose right off the bat,'' says Daniel Glazer, a sports law specialist and author of Can't Anybody Here Run This Game? The Past, Present, and Future of Major League Baseball. "They started to turn off fans. The media contracts didn't grow as much as they might have expected.

"What is needed, if you're going to expand the league like that -- especially given the NHL hasn't had the popularity of the other major leagues -- is to generate and keep a buzz going. That existed and then it was largely curtailed, if not destroyed by the lockout. Then expansion went forward, anyway. And you see teams in these non-traditional markets now that are struggling.''

If ever a league was ripe for contraction, this is it. The conflicted mess that exists between Major League Baseball and its stepchild franchise, the Montreal Expos, is nothing compared to the economic mismanagement perpetuated by NHL clubs. It's easy to blame the players for goofy salaries, but the bottom line rests with ownership.

This is a league where, if owners are to be believed, 75 percent of revenues go to cover player salaries. It has minimal TV revenue and so it relies on ticket sales. And though it needs to get fannies in the seats, it keeps jacking up the price of tickets to pay its players. That doesn't exactly seem like a good business model.

So how long will the sides drag this out? The popular assumption is if it's not settled by January there won't be a season. If so, hockey would surpass the damage done by the baseball strike of 1994 that cost the post-season.

And that's fitting, because these financials read far worse.

"The difference between the NHL and Major League Baseball is baseball was actually in the middle of what turned out to be a season with the highest average attendance ever,'' Glazer says. "Attendance has only recently gotten back to pre-strike levels. In hockey, which doesn't have that hold on the American sporting public and already is in trouble in terms of ratings and attendance, it is questionable whether the league can withstand this kind of hit.''

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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