Labor disputes in professional sports are all about one thing: money. It’s tough for fans to come to grips with realizing the game they love can be used for profit by both owners and players. Unfortunately, that’s just the way the world works. The NHL lockout and the battle between the owners and the NHLPA is no exception.
For months both sides have been posturing and positioning themselves for the announcement that came Saturday that the NHL owners will be locking out the players. Both sides have been working to create leverage that will put them in the best position to come away with the most money. The NHLPA declined to start contract talks ten months ago. The NHL owners sent in their first offer, which left the players with an insultingly tiny share of the pie. Neither side is without fault here. They’re just trying to gain leverage on the other side.
One of the biggest threats the players hold is the ability to play elsewhere. They can play in the AHL or Europe or the KHL and still make good money while competing at a high level against pros. If I was running the NHLPA, I’d have a different contingency plan I’d be enacting right now.
Andrew’s Hockey Superstar Barnstorming BonanzaOkay, so I’m not great at naming things but I swear this idea gets better.
At some point a few months ago, it probably became clear to the higher-ups at NHLPA HQ that the NHL owners would lock the players out. This weekend’s announcement was not a huge surprise. So let’s pretend that I am running the NHLPA. I’m making my first move in June or July. The logistics to my plan will be a bit complex.
Shortly after the draft, I’d place a few calls to some consulting firms. “Yes, hello, I have two dozen hockey players who will be looking for some work in October. They’re the greatest players on the planet and people routine pay tons of money to watch them play. I’d like you to draw up a proposal for them to play a few games across North America and present it to me in a few weeks.” Now things are in motion.
The plan maps out a 10 city tour of the United States and Canada. Two teams compete for some type of prize money to be shared among the victors. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Steven Stamkos. These are just a handful of North American players who would probably like to stay on the continent instead of playing in Europe. That’s a pretty great roster that I just came up with off the top of my head. NHL fans would pay a lot of money to see those guys play. The only comparable would be the All Star Game, which has less hitting than the Red Sox.
The first handful of cities I’d bring this Tour de All Star to would be places who have been trying to get NHL franchises. Fans in Hamilton, Quebec City, and Kansas City have been showing up in droves to exhibitions to show that they can support a team. This is another opportunity for those fans to show up to an NHL caliber event and fill a stadium. Next, I’d throw in some places like Seattle and Milwaukee. Those cities have facilities that could handle a one-time event like this in their basketball arenas. You have to play some games in the largest markets of the United States so I’d also go to New York, LA, and Chicago. Cap off the tour in Las Vegas and make a huge spectacle out of it, like a championship boxing or UFC bout. Roll out the red carpet and get Floyd Mayweather to tweet about how much money he has riding on the game.
The consultants are there to hammer out the contract deals with all the venues and find financial backing. Investment bankers would drool at the chance to pitch this to some of their high networth investors.
Finally, the stake through Bettman’s heart: television. ESPN has had some strenuous ties to the NHL over the years. Gary Bettman thought ESPN lowballed them with their final offer for NHL broadcast rights. When he took the league over to OLN/Versus/NBC Sports Net, ESPN started to ignore the league altogether. This would be ESPN’s chance to serve hockey fans and draw in casual fans through the allure of Olympic-quality play. ESPN would pay significant money for those rights. Getting the games on tv would also help draw in sponsors. Hell, you could have companies put logos on the jerseys without worrying about hurting the value of the teams’ brands.
Now the NHLPA has a credible threat to the NHL. They can go into the negotiations with a bit more leverage. Their players aren’t relying on the owners so much for their livelihood. It also aligns more fans with the players because the players can go on a PR tour, connecting with the fans and bringing them the game they love despite the greedy owners trying to take it away.
I’d pay money to go see that. Wouldn’t you?