The NHL Lockout and the Future of Hockey

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By Nate Schapmann

You may remember my column on the baseball playoffs where I said the sport would need to open itself up to the younger audiences of the country if it were to thrive in the future.  With hockey, we see a very similar scenario.  There’s no question that among today’s youth, basketball and football reign supreme, while baseball and hockey take a backseat.  Even with the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup a few years ago, hockey fever has yet to take root in the Chicagoland area, at least not among the next generation of sports fans.

One would think that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would recognize this and see that it would be in the league’s best interest to play hockey at any costs, as they have by far the smallest American fanbase of the main four sports.  Still, this is the third lockout under Bettman, and the sport’s fanbase continues to dwindle.  Even if the NHL is huge in Canada, the USA is a land full of economic opportunity for hockey.

In truth, the NHL team owners’ primary interest is more money.  They want to decrease the player’s percentage share of hockey-related revenues from 57 percent to 43 percent, eliminate signing bonuses, set a uniform salary for each year of a contract, eliminate salary arbitration, and extend the amount of time it takes for a veteran player to become an unrestricted free agent from seven years to 10 years.

As with any lockout, I side with the players, as they’re the heart and soul of the league. The players are what make a sport popular and keep fans loyal, and they are why people fill the stadiums and arenas.  The owners remain behind the scenes, directing revenue, player contracts and controlling the day-to-day business operations of the team.  The notion of professional sports being a business today is very prevalent, yet these union versus owners lockouts only hurt the game of hockey and drive the fans away from the game, as they begin to see the NHL as a corporation and not as a provider of entertainment.

Thanks to the owners increased desire for money, the NHL has only suffered in many ways, yet Bettman continues to stand at the owners’ side, opting not to take on the role of arbiter.  After years of tense player-owner relations and two other lockouts, one would think Bettman would have seen the various negative impacts to hockey’s fanbase, not to mention the secondary effects of an NHL standstill (the economic ramifications for people who make a living off selling parking spots, food, or merchandise.)

With the NHL’s previous history of lockouts under Bettman, one has to wonder, do the owners even care about the players?  They are very specific in their terms, and they somehow managed to convince the players to concede to most of their demands in 2005 during the last lockout, so they know that with persistence, they’ll eventually get what they want.  The NHLPA’s counter-proposals have been moving increasingly towards the owner’s demands, and it’s only a matter of time before the union proposes a deal similar to that of the owners’.  They know they will get their money eventually, so why care if the fans don’t get to see hockey this season?  I’m sure the revenue hit they will receive from this gridlock will soon disappear following their newfound revenue from the union’s inevitable proposal.

With the All-Star Game, the Winter Classic and 34 percent of the season’s games already canceled, I would say that the possibility of there being NHL hockey this year is slim. If they can come to a deal within the next three weeks or so, the season might not be completely lost.