The baseball postseason just came to its exciting conclusion, the football season is in full swing and the basketball season is just tipping off. To many people, that sounds like the norm for this time of year. But for certain fans, something is terribly wrong with the fall sports lineup this year – hockey is missing.
The National Hockey League (NHL) is in the midst of a lockout, meaning that until an agreement between owners and players is reached, there will be no hockey season. Between a slow-moving negotiation process, the lack of attention the work stoppage is receiving and the frustration of fans, the NHL has a lot of work to do if it ever wants to return to its glory days.
Last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that due to the league’s financial situation and the players’ unwillingness to negotiate, the chances of having a season are slipping away.
“I say this – and I hate when I say it,” he said, “we lose less money when we are not playing. The problems are so severe that we need to fix it the right way. The damage we will suffer if we don’t fix it, now that we have the opportunity to do it, is incalculable.”
The owners and the players disagree on the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which lists the guidelines concerning player salaries and team spending. The owners claim that the league is losing money and that a salary cap, which puts a limit on the amount each team can spend on salaries, is needed to stabilize league finances. The players are willing to reduce salaries to an extent but refuse to accept a salary cap.
Both sides have been criticized in the media for their contribution to the conflict. Owners have been ridiculed because they are complaining about the very salaries that they negotiated with players. According to the NHL Web site, since the last CBA went into effect, owners have allowed player salaries to rise an astounding 246 percent.
Meanwhile, players are being attacked for being greedy and unwilling to accept that they need to take partial responsibility for the league’s financial problems. Last season the NHL average salary was $1.8 million, so players certainly will not go broke if they accept a pay cut. Owners point out that the NFL and NBA, both successful leagues with high player salaries, have a salary cap system in place.
Instead of figuring out which side has the best arguments, maybe everyone should look past that and look at the real losers here – the fans.
“I am really disappointed,” Megan Smith, junior early childhood education/psychology major and New Jersey Devils fan, said. “I love the game and I love going to watch it because it’s such a good time, and to know that I won’t get to do that for at least a year is a real letdown.”
Adding to their disappointment over the absence of hockey is the fact that many fans feel that the labor stoppage is not going to end anytime soon.
“I feel extremely upset about there not being a season, especially since the core issue is money for both players and the owners and there seems to be no end in sight,” Michael Slattery, sophomore psychology major and New York Rangers fan, said. “It is a hopeless situation as of right now.”
Hopeless does seem to be the fitting word. Owners and players have not had negotiations since Sept. 9, six days before the labor stoppage officially began. They have no plans for meeting again. Meanwhile, about 250 players have gone abroad to play in European leagues where they are making a few hundred thousand dollars, far less than the millions they could make in the NHL.
The main problem with the idleness on both sides is that fans are getting more and more frustrated. Very little progress is being made, and when it does, the media hardly reports it.
“I want to know what the negotiators have been saying,” Bethany Allinder, junior English major and Rangers fan, said. “It seems everything is hush-hush.”
Just over two years ago, Major League Baseball players were contemplating going on strike in the middle of the season. The media went into a frenzy, with strike news dominating newspaper headlines and SportsCenter news. After all this attention, the players agreed on a new CBA and the strike never even took place.
Yet the NHL lockout, which has been in effect for almost two months and could cause an entire season to be cancelled, receives no such media attention. This is disturbing because it means that both the national media and the majority of fans do not seem to care about the absence of a major sport.
The NHL needs to recognize that its problems stretch further than just finances; if the season is lost, the league can expect to lose a large portion of its already withering fan base. If the owners want to make money and the players want to get higher salaries, the league must attract fans.
Instead of discussing salary caps and luxury taxes, the league should be concerned about lowering the sky-high ticket prices and adding rules to increase scoring in games. The formula is pretty simple – if the fans are happy, then players and owners will get the money they so desperately desire.
For now, hockey fans must live with the notion that they will probably not get to see professional hockey for a long time. Some fans may become so frustrated that they give up on the league, and that is totally understandable. However, even after a prolonged lockout, some hockey fanatics will be ready and willing to enjoy the NHL whenever play resumes.
“If they were to start the season now, 10 months from now, or 10 years from now I would go back,” Smith said. “I am frustrated yes, but I’ll get over it – as long as they promise to have a good fight in the first game.”