NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13: Don Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association meets with the media at Marriott Marquis Times Square on September 13, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
As with last year's NBA lockout, television may be the key to bringing the NHL's players and owners together.
Barring a major change of heart, the National Hockey League is heading for its fourth work stoppage in 20 years, only eight years after becoming the first North American sports league to cancel an entire season.
It is a dispute patterned after last year's NBA lockout, with both sides fighting over distribution of wealth to struggling teams and division of the league's revenue -- estimated at $3.3 billion last season. And as with the NBA last year, the two sides in the NHL's dispute are heading for a lockout at midnight Saturday evening.
It's no accident that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the league is set to lock its doors after a unanimous vote by the league's Board of Governors Thursday. For months, all signs have pointed to both sides taking the talks slowly and wanting to cut a better deal for themselves, but that is typical of a labor dispute. Each side tries to ratchet up the pressure on the other to cut a deal, and the reality of potential income loss is the method both are using to get the best possible result for their side - something only an official lockout can do, in this case.
The NBA last year had a lockout that kept games off the calendar until Christmas Day - each team ended up playing 66 games of 82 on the schedule - but there was very limited damage to the league's overall health in the long run.
With several owners owning franchises in both leagues, including Washington's Ted Leonsis, the NBA's recent experience certainly holds some influence over the course of negotiations, with a similar idea of suffering limited long-term damage, despite the league reporting record revenue last season.
For the NHL, following in the NBA's footsteps is a pattern. Gary Bettman was hired away from the NBA in 1993 in part to install a salary cap, and after two lockouts in 1994 and 2004, Bettman was able to get that for the NHL owners. Now, the NHL appears to be heading down the NBA's recent path of risking a limited loss of games in the hope of getting a bigger chunk of revenue in return.
While the two leagues overlap in a lot of ways, the depth and scope of each league's economics is a little bit different. The NBA has a broader fan base than the NHL, though the NHL enjoys more support in Canada than the NBA does in America. While the NBA is well-funded thanks to a lucrative $930 million per season deal with its broadcast partners ESPN/ABC and TNT, the NHL is more dependent on ticket revenue, local television rights fees and other concessions, given its muchsmaller $200 million per season deal with NBC and $105 million with CBC for Canadian rights.
Temporarily, both sides have a bit of financial cushion. While the players are due to receive an escrow payment on last season's salary on October 15 - just as they would lose their first game checks - the owners would not have to pay out salary, while teams would have collected ticket money for the upcoming season already.
The dispute puts some of the gains the NHL has made over the past seven years at risk. Some cities that have seen tremendous growth in ticket sales and television ratings since 2005 include large markets like Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. A stoppage puts some of that growth at risk, but with the league's in-season mainstream exposure smallest at the beginning of the regular season, the hope is that the overall damage will be lower with the NFL under way and the MLB playoffs in full swing.
Also in play this time around is the NHLPA's desire not to appear weak. In 2004-05, the union's leadership underestimated the owners' resolve to install a salary cap, and ended up being dealt a double defeat in losing a full season and not stopping the cap. This time, the NHLPA hired former MLBPA boss Don Fehr to protect their rights, and make sure they didn't suffer a repeat.
But as with the NBA's recent labor dispute, what might end up getting both sides to settle is television.
The NBA season started on Christmas Day, the first day its games are broadcast on network TV. The NHL's first American national broadcast of 2012-13 is scheduled for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when NBC is set to televise a Boston Bruins-New York Rangers game. But the really big broadcast is set for New Year's Day, when the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings are due to meet in the game that sets the standard for regular-season NHL action, the Winter Classic.
So, as the NHL owners apply the padlocks to training facilities - players will be forbidden from using team workout facilities and attending team functions during the dispute - it seems like once again the NHL is following in the NBA's footsteps.
As preseason games appear ready to be wiped off the schedule - the Capitals were slated to host the Bruins on Sept. 25 and play Columbus in Baltimore on Sept. 26 - Alex Ovechkin has indicated he will play in Russia during the dispute, while those NHLers who elect to wait it out will get the escrow checks on Oct. 15 to dull the loss of their first paycheck from this season.
But, sadly for the NHL, the lockout seems to be inevitable, as the two sides seem content to wait out each other and try and get as big a slice of the revenue pie as they can before coming back sometime around the holidays. For the fans who have already seen three labor disputes (the lockouts in 1994 and 2004 were preceded by a players' strike in 1992), asking for patience again to get their house in order is somewhat risky, considering the NHL is now leading the other three major sports in terms of number of labor disputes.
Unlike 2004, there has been little warning of a potential lockout from the clubs, and teams over the summer barely have acknowledged a potential dispute. Fans were made aware of the need for a cap in 2004, but the ground work to educate and make the fans feel like they were aware of each side's goals hasn't been done this time around, which will limit the patience of the sport's loyal fans.
Both sides gave signs of strength Thursday, outlining their reasons for not coming to an agreement, but at the center is the problem of how to split up $3.3 billion. While it's certainly not an easy task, it's also not a season killer. And while it's seemingly the product of a deliberate strategy of brinksmanship by both sides, it's also a shame to see a sport with such growth potential put itself in the news for all the wrong reasons.