December 12, 2012

The NHL lockout is one of those man-bites-dog situations. People who would ordinarily have a hard time telling apart Alexander Ovechkin from Alexander Godunov, are actually aware that the league is in the middle of a labor dispute that is threatening the 2012-13 season.

In other words, the lockout has been pretty good PR—except that there isn’t, you know, much of anything to publicize these days.

We here at V as in Victor—yes, I mean me—admire hockey more than actually enjoy it. And, okay, that may have something to do with a lack of Latinos in the sport, or with my history at hockey games, which has a rather vexed quality to it.

I’ve gone to two games in my life. Gone to, not seen. The first was in junior high. My family hadn’t been living in the US very long, and my dad scored some Flyers tickets from a coworker. He decided to take my mom, my sister, and me.

Looking back on it, there was something hare-brained from the get-go about the proposition. Neither my mom nor my sister cared much for sports, and none of us knew the first thing about hockey—except that the players seemed to spend as much time fighting as playing. (Remember, this was the Broad Street Bullies era, so, a bit of hyperbole, but not a lot.)

We walked into the Spectrum and sat down in our designated seats. I was still getting acclimated when a group of older men stood above my dad in the aisle and asked to see our tickets. Turned out we had the wrong date—our tickets were for Thursday, not Tuesday.

Out the family trooped, piled into the Ford cream-yellow station wagon, and endured the hour-plus ride home. By the time Thursday rolled around, we didn’t go. Can’t remember why. For all I know, because my parents were afraid that the usher and people sitting in the row behind would recognize us.

The next time I went to a hockey game, it was early in my time in New York City—maybe 1990. My pal Mark Rozzo and I went to Madison Square Garden and bought scalped tickets. That wasn’t as clueless a tactic as it may seem now. We had done much the same thing at Yankee Stadium a few times and had gotten some pretty decent results.

Not this time. Whenever somebody mentions “nosebleed” seats, those are the ones I imagine. I remember feeling like I had to duck when standing up in order to avoid bumping my head on the MSG ceiling.

It was hot up there. Far below us, the players kept turning in lazy circles on the ice, occasionally spinning to chase a puck I couldn’t quite see.

Before I knew it, the second period had started. According to Mark, I had been snoring with some gusto.

Which is just my long-winded way of saying that you should take anything I write about the NHL lockout with a big, old grain of salt. That being said, here goes:

In any labor dispute, you have to assume that the owners are in the wrong.

I know that sounds harsh and lacking in analytical discrimination, but it’s true. Let’s leave aside for the moment questions of greed and thoughts about what is or isn’t an adequate level of compensation. Both sides are greedy since both want to get the best deal they can possibly get and both sides are grotesquely overpaid—that much is understood.

Does one side deserve their share more? I would say the players do, since they provide the actual entertainment that fans like us are willing to pay for. But I understand that many people would disagree—I don’t understand why they would, but never mind.

The fact is that in any labor dispute the owners hold all the cards: They know how much revenue a team takes in, and—despite the calls for cost certainty—they control exactly how much money it takes to put that team on the ice night in and night out.

It’s not rocket science. If a team isn’t profitable, you need to increase revenue by hiking ticket prices. (Fielding a better team would also do the trick, but that’s less controllable.)

Either that or spend less, of course. But while owners always talk about labor costs as if they were the only variable in the equation, there are dozens of ways to reduce cost without lowering the quality of play. You ever hear anything about team executives taking a pay cut? Of course not.

And, in fact, from year to year, labor costs are almost entirely within each owner’s control. The problem is, the owners just can’t be trusted with the organizational checkbook. (I.e., Scott Gomez’s 7 year, $51.5 million deal that the Canadiens were aware of, theoretically, when they traded for him.)

The owners trying to penalize the players for their own spendthrift ways makes about as much sense as a shop-a-holic suing a department store for having issued him a credit card. Nice try, fella.

To me, the craziest thing about all of this is how people still seem to think that Gary Bettman is a good—even Hall of Fame–worthy—commissioner. Please. He is the absolute pits.

This is the third work stoppage under his watch, and it looks like every one will wipe out at least 500 games. Talk about the fiscal cliff—this guy must have been a puffin in a previous life.

His negotiating style seems designed to irk, not work. Before the lockout he blustered that the league would ask for deeper cuts in the NHLPA’s share if the players dared to let the impasse cut into the regular-season. (Note to Bettman: That sort of ultimatum only works if the other side is walking out, not if you yourself are shutting down operations.)

And just when negotiations seemed to be getting somewhere, some owners stated that they would refuse to sit down across the table from the NHLPA head Donald Fehr. Methinks that idiocy has all the hallmarks of Bettman’s touch.

Yes, the NHL has grown during his tenure, from $400 million in annual revenues to more than $3 billion between 1992-93 and 2010-11. In terms of percentage that’s a 650% increase—either that or a 100% drop, if you go to this season’s $0 in revenues.

Keep in mind that during that time, the league expanded from 24 teams to 30—certainly a sign of health, but also an indication that while overall revenue was rising quickly, the value of the average team grew less robustly.

Also, with the explosion of ESPN and FoxSports and all the local franchise cable channels, name me one sports league that hasn’t managed to expand or grow in value over that time? The NBA pretty much kept pace with the NHL’s revenue growth, going from $1.6 billion to $4.3 billion in the same time frame. Along the way, only three new NBA teams were added, so every franchise saw a bigger rise in team value.

I mean, Christ, even the MLS is looking up.

How much of a genius can Bettman be?

“Hockey on Ice,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “The Gloves Come Off,” the December 12, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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