Ending the Lockout: The Owner Playbook

Gary Bettman
Gary Bettman will earn over $8 million to serve as NHL lockout fall guy  (Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE)

It’s all about perception.

In mid-July, the NHL owners tabled an outrageous initial proposal.  They envisioned a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that would see the players’ share of Hockey-Related Revenue fall from 57 to 43 percent.  Players would not only have to put in a decade of service before reaching unrestricted free agency, but they’d also lose their rights to salary arbitration, contracts longer than five years, and inevitably their firstborn children.

The reaction was predictable.  Few took it seriously.  A handful of players openly mocked the proposed terms.  Yet the stage was set.

Three months later when the owners publicly released a more sensible but still completely one-sided proposal, the “ball was placed firmly into the players’ court.”  The owners had conceded their own demands and now it was the players fault if the lockout continued?

Why do media and fans — and human beings in general — allow themselves to be manipulated by perception biases and recent events?

Can we even avoid it?

This fall’s U.S. Presidential election was a perfect example.  Bill Clinton left office in 2001 with a tarnished image after becoming only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached.  However, Clinton’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years and peaked after an impressive speech during President Obama’s re-election campaign.  Suddenly he’s now known as “one of the greatest Presidents in American history“.

Bill Clinton — Greatest U.S. President Ever? (Flickr/afagen)

It’s amazing what a difference ten years can make — or three months in the NHL’s case.

Two sources on the NHL owner side of the table recently indicated that they fully expect this season to be cancelled.

Hearing that is exactly why I expect both sides will reach an agreement soon.

Despite PR spin, the owners have followed a very scripted approach to these negotiations driven entirely by business metrics such as cash flow and, by extension, franchise valuations.  Most owners don’t plan to hold onto franchises for life.  The expected investment timeline is probably in the range of ten years and the value of NHL franchises ten years from now will be based one thing: how much cash can teams generate under future CBA agreements?

Players will never really get the chance to make up for lost paychecks from the lockout; the owners eventually will through a more favorable business model.  Owners already have a good sense for exactly how close to the ledge they can push the players and they’re waiting for the right time to pull back on their hard-line stance to reach an amicable settlement.

If you could take a peek at the owner playbook, you might even see this week circled.

High school and college football seasons (aside from a handful of bowl games) are finished.  Sports fans will be ready to shift their attention and entertainment dollars to the NBA and NHL.  And now Gary Bettman is ready to step aside to let new voices be heard.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and the handful of players that will meet face to face with owners on Tuesday afternoon.

Savvy businessmen Ron Burkle (Pittsburgh owner) and Jeffrey Vinik (Tampa Bay) come to the table and offer a voice of reason, maybe even compassion.  They finally take the time to explain stance of the owners and work towards an agreement that both sides can live with.  The players feel relief, shake hands, and leave with a smile. They say to each other “see, all we had to do was get Bettman out of the way!”  The owners save face and Bettman gladly accepts the fan ridicule he’s always endured in exchange for his $8 million salary.

Sure, Boston owner Jeremy Jacobs may never be hockey’s Bill Clinton, but all that will be remembered from this lockout years from now is how a handful of owners came to their senses and “saved the season” — just like New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft did during NFL lockout negotiations last summer.

This isn’t meant to be a pro-players editorial.  They definitely haven’t been flawless in their approach to negotiations either.  It’s just that the ownership playbook is entirely scripted, based purely on business metrics, and nearly free from emotion.

The NHLPA stance is harder to pin down, and probably by design.  Donald Fehr has made it difficult for the owners to determine exactly what the players want. There’s also no telling what he has left in his arsenal to paint this lockout as a “victory” for the players in the history books and cement his legacy as a premier labor leader.

Additionally, there’s an emotional part of the player equation that can be difficult to predict. These CBA negotiations are all about balancing the playing field for future negotiations. If the NHLPA were to get steamrolled again after unraveling in the 2004-05 lockout, they’d never regain a shred of respect from the owners.

At this point, both sides have accomplished their respective goals. The player-owner meeting is a perfect opportunity to salvage business relationships and paint Gary Bettman as the lockout scapegoat once again.

In a matter of days or months, most hardcore hockey fans will be back in their seats and casual fans will be ready to hop on board for what should be a wild 45-55 game season. The league will suffer a hiccup in revenue before picking up where it left off with record growth and business success.

All will be right in the hockey world — or at least that’s what we’ll remember.

It’s all about perception.


Email: MJColligan@TheHockeyWriters.com

Twitter: @MikeColligan