DeCock: NHL is counting on forgetful fans

August 18, 2012 

They haven’t canceled an NHL game yet, but the rookie tournament the Carolina Hurricanes have attended in recent years was wiped off the schedule Thursday. The Detroit Red Wings, who host the annual event in Traverse City, Mich., pulled the plug with less than a month left to run on the NHL’s labor agreement.

That agreement, for which the NHL’s owners were willing to give up an entire season eight years ago, one they essentially dictated to the capitulating players, one that kicked off eight years of skyrocketing revenue for the league, has been deemed faulty by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, its architect.

In short: The NHL got everything it wanted in the last lockout. And now, after eight years of unprecedented success, it wants more.

If the last lockout was a necessary alteration in the game’s basic financial structure – and everyone from fans to the players were willing to acknowledge some kind of change was needed – the lockout that’s a month away from kicking off is about pure greed.

Fans came flocking back to hockey in the fall of 2005, and they’ve kept streaming through the doors since. Apparently, the NHL considers them gullible sheep instead of valued customers, because the league already took them for suckers once.

In 2004, Bettman promised ticket prices would go down if the league got the labor agreement it wanted. He even scoffed at the “abstract theory” of supply and demand.

“The fact of the matter is, more than a majority of our teams would use the opportunity of economic stability to lower their ticket prices,” Bettman said.

The fact of the matter is, the average NHL ticket went up almost 25 percent in the five years following the lockout, according to Team Marketing Report. (The average Hurricanes ticket went from $31.77 in 2004 to $41.58 in 2010.)

With lower-revenue franchises like the Hurricanes having a hard time keeping pace with their big-market brethren, the game’s economic system still needs fixing. Still, the circumstances call for tweaks, not a massive overhaul. Increase revenue sharing, close the loopholes allowing decade-long, front-loaded contracts, and, sure, haggle over the players’ share of the pot. It would be easy to get that deal done before training camp opens.

But the NHL owners – and 11 of them weren’t around for the last lockout – want more. Rather than share the wealth with each other, they want to lower salaries to the point where even the poorest clubs can pay the bills, with the rich getting even richer. At the moment, players get 57 percent of revenue. The NHL’s first proposal would crank that down to about 43 percent while imposing all kinds of draconian restrictions on contracts and free agency.

The NHL points out, correctly, that NFL and NBA players have agreed to take a smaller share while failing to point out it has offered few of the compromises those leagues offered to get those deals. (Most notably: the NFL’s across-the-board revenue-sharing plan that allows the Green Bay Packers to compete on equal footing with the New York franchises.)

There’s an agreement to be made, one that addresses the problems facing the game and helps franchises like the Hurricanes. At this point, the NHL has made it clear it isn’t interested in making that agreement.

Eight years ago, NHL owners wanted “cost certainty.” Fans could buy into that. Now, they just want more money – at the expense of the players, fans and people whose livings depend on the games being played – and they appear willing to pull the plug on part or all of the season to get it. Will fans buy into that?

DeCock: luke.decock@newsobserver.com, (919) 829-8947, Twitter: @LukeDeCock

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