Shame on me for ever thinking Donald Fehr and the NHLPA were trying to win hearts and minds while Gary Bettman and NHL owners patiently awaited their payroll kickbacks at the cost of losing the public relations battle.
Bettman has been playing the PR game all along.
”I am concerned based on the proposal that was made today that things are not progressing,” Bettman said Thursday. ”To the contrary, I view the proposal made by the players’ association in many ways a step backward.”
At the time, many viewed the NHL’s initial offer of a 43-57 players-to-league revenue split as a step backward. To be sure, even the NHL couldn’t have believed its offer was an honest one, and accusations of bad-faith dealmaking were common. Since that time, the league has brought its offers up to 46 and eventually 50 percent for the players.
What’s remarkable about the timing of the latest NHL proposal is that less than a day after falling completely off the PR cliff with the release of the Luntz focus group surveys, the NHL conjured up unlimited goodwill by offering its surprise deal, which included the 50-50 keyword.
The question now becomes whether Bettman’s words are a PR ploy masking honest progress towards a deal, or an honest assessment of the league’s refusal to back down from anything that doesn’t include an immediate 50-50 revenue split.
Half and half sounds good, but is 50-50 really a fair place to land? It seems even (what’s more fair than half and half?). The NFL and NBA recently arrived at or near 50-50 revenue splits, creating precedent.
As far as the owners are concerned, it’s a seven-percent concession from their initial offer and the players should match their seven-percent concession and arrive at the 50-50 mark.
(This is the evil genius of the 43 percent offer, which the league now sets as its seven-percent concession benchmark despite having no reasonable expectation of landing such a precipitous giveback.)
So the lockout soldiers on, and the players will have to do better, because the NHL has already made its best offer.
This is Bettman’s view. It may have taken him less than an hour to arrive at his comprehensive assessment of the new NHLPA offers (alternately, the PA provided three responses to the NHL’s last offer after two days of analysis). But it is his view, and therefore the view of the league.
And because of that, the NHL will remain locked out for the foreseeable future.
”I don’t know what the next step is,” Bettman said. ”I’m obviously very discouraged.”
Bettman has traveled further down this road than any executive in the history of North American pro sports. He knows what the next step is (cancelling several hundred games unless the NHLPA accepts the league’s terms right away, which it won’t). And if the sudden halt to the negotiating process really is “discouraging,” it’s safe money that the league is only discouraged that the union didn’t accept its offer wholesale.
It’s all part of the NHL’s PR ploy. The last few days of breath-baited optimism stemming from an NHL offer that actually came up (!) to a 50-50 revenue split was the result of careful, calculated public relations chatter spun by some of the finest web-weavers in the game.
The first rule of negotiating is that it’s done out of the public eye. That the NHL posted its offer online, unprovoked, smacked of PR grandstanding.
Keep in mind, Bettman isn’t a hockey guy. He’s a lockout guy, and for the last twenty years his union-busting laser has been pointed at the NHL. His resume alone is enough to tell you he isn’t simply a mouthpiece for the owners. He and NBA commissioner David Stern, both alumni of the same high-powered New York law firm, have presided over five of the last six big-four player lockouts. The NFL was responsible for the other, and it resulted in zero lost games.
While the league has experienced unprecedented growth under Bettman’s stewardship, it has also flexed Carnegie-like managerial muscle when dealing with its players. One wonders how much more the league could have grown had it not forfeited more than 1700 games (so far) under Bettman’s leadership.
So when Bettman took less than an hour to shoot down the players’ proposals and then greeted the press with hoover flags and hangdog disappointment in full view, anyone familiar with the process and with his past should have known the events of the last few days have been nothing but theater.
Bettman, Bill Daly and whomever else sits among the NHL’s cadre of union-busting, sports-deaf lawyers did not for a second entertain any of the NHLPA’s three offers, and likely entered into Thursday’s meeting with no expectation of doing so, even before the first detail of the players’ proposals sat before them. They simply needed to relay to the public that what the players asked for was untenable and unreasonable, shifting the onus of public scorn off the billionaires and onto the millionaires.
“This is the best offer that we have to make,” Bettman said of the NHL’s 50-50 proposal. “The fact is, we’re nowhere close to what we proposed.”
When Bettman says the NHLPA’s offer is nowhere close to what the NHL proposed, he’s right. It’s nowhere close—even after a 50-50 split of future revenues which would come in graduated declinations of the current 57 percent mark, which the PA proposed with two of its deals presented Thursday.
The PA’s celebrated third deal even offered an immediate 50-50 split of future revenues, provided that contracts previously granted by owners would be honored in full.
Bettman shot down each of these proposals in short order.
Whether the quick response was a designed bit of PR huffing and puffing or honest indignation is up in the air, because the process is still being spun in the language of negotiating (read: lying). So, despite the acrimony, reasons for optimism still exist. Both parties agreed on the 50-50 mark, even if their paths to that number are fundamentally different. The NHL wants to get there right away. The players are willing to get there right away, so long as previously agreed upon contracts are honored.
Unlike in 2005, the parties have a common finish line.
The devil now lay in the details, where grandstanding and rhetoric must give way to honest-to-God negotiating if a deal is ever going to get done. Fehr and Bettman are by all accounts the best in the business when it comes to negotiating. And even though neither will say it, the goal of 50-50 is actually a shared sacrifice each side has worked towards.
One hopes that the hard-nosed rhetoric in the face of small but clear steps toward progress is really just the language of negotiating. Because despite Bettman’s Thursday laments, these sides actually are speaking the same language.
The key now is making sure the shared language becomes one of progress instead of politics.
James was a Penguins contributor at THW and SB Nation Pensburgh and owns the Pittsburgh sports blog Slew Footers.