In NHL Deal, Owners Shoot and Score on Players

The deal to end to the NHL lockout has team owners taking more and more from players.

More than 50 percent of the originally scheduled hockey games have already been cancelled.
By SHARE

Pat Garofalo is economic policy editor for ThinkProgress.org.

The National Hockey League announced a tentative deal to end its lockout over the weekend, saving it from losing yet another season. The NHL already holds the dubious distinction of being the only major sports league to flush away an entire season after it canceled the 2004-2005 campaign, and until the last few days it seemed that NHL owners were willing to repeat that performance.

But while fans are surely excited that their favorite teams are returning to the ice (go Devils!), it's a shame that another professional sports lockout was resolved by taking a chunk of hide from the players. And make no mistake: the lockout was about owners trying to extract huge concessions from their employees, and they largely succeeded.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are 'Right-to-Work' Laws Good for States?]

Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, which still has to be ratified by the players, the owners' share of so-called "hockey related revenue" will increase from 43 percent to 50 percent. Importantly, as ThinkProgress's Travis Waldron explained, "hockey-related revenue is not comprised of all revenue NHL teams make, so this isn't actually an even split." Owners get to take a portion of the pie for themselves, and then share the remainder with the players 50-50.

The new agreement also limits the length of player contracts to seven years (eight if a team is re-signing its own players) and year to year pay increases will be restricted. Gone are the contracts such as the one signed by Ilya Kovalchuck, which will keep him in a New Jersey uniform for 15 years, barring a trade. The salary cap will also be lowered next year from $70 million to about $64 million.

In essence, the owners demanded that the players cough up a sizeable share of the league's revenue, lower the cap on salaries, and then codify an agreement to protect the owners from their own stupidity. After all, the easy way to avoid paying for long contracts and giving players large salary increases year after year is simply to not sign players under those terms. Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, for instance, signed two superstars to huge, 13-year contracts, and then took a hard-line against the players' union due to the supposed unfairness of ... huge, 13-year contracts.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The players did walk away with some positives from the long negotiation. The league will move towards creating a defined pension system that the players long desired, and some of the more outlandish demands made by the owners—such as the ability to roll back already-signed contracts—were not a part of the final deal. Still, as USA Today's Kevin Allen put it, "No matter how you spin this, players have a smaller share of total dollars and fewer contract rights than they had before."

It's easy to dismiss labor strife in professional sports leagues as simply millionaires fighting with billionaires. Even President Obama sounded like the prototypical fan when he discussed the NHL lockout, telling the owners and the players to just work it out. "My message to owners and to players is, you guys make a lot of money and you make a lot of money on the backs of fans, so do right by your fans," he said.

[See 2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

But just because the workers in question happen to be very well paid doesn't make it okay for employers to walk all over them. Both the NBA and the NHL lockouts over the last two years have resulted in substantial reductions in the players' share of league revenue, with the benefit all going to owners (who, incidentally, then plead poverty to extract public infrastructure money from taxpayers).

Sure, those deals could have been worse for the players, but owners have successfully used the public's "pox on both their houses" view of the matter to take more and more away from their employees, playing the role of corporate titan to perfection. So while the NHL will be back on the ice, it will be with management taking a larger, and seemingly ever-growing, share of fans' money.