NHL lockout 2012: League, union meet, but avoid discussing real issues

Bruce Bennett - Getty Images

NHL CBA negotiations won't move anywhere until the two sides address their philosophical differences about who carries the burden of keeping the league healthy.

As the NHL and NHL Players Association meet formally for the first time in the two-week old lockout, intent on merely discussing "non-core economic" issues, they continue to avoid the central issues that have caused this dispute.

The chief issue – and certainly the most cited point of contention – is how to divide the share of hockey-related revenue (HRR). But that's just a numerical fight. (Granted, it's a fight where one percent can mean hundreds of millions of dollars over a decade).

Deeper down, at the core of this dispute, is a philosophical fight: Who carries the burden of running this league?

The owners obviously think they do, which is one reason they seek something closer to a 50-50 split of revenues with the players, rather than the 57 percent the players attained in the final seasons of the expired CBA. (Another reason: Simple greed. You may call it greed.)

But the NHL is an odd league, unlike the other "big three" sports leagues of North America: It's top eight or so clubs do very, very well and are responsible for pretty much all of its profits. The rest just get by or struggle with yearly losses. Unlike other leagues, there is not a very lucrative national TV contract from which to spread the wealth.

So while 30 franchises is great for a footprint across North America and a plan for long-term growth of the game, it's not so good for year-to-year business. And that's where the players, who benefit from having 30 franchises – and thus around 700 jobs – recognize the problem, but don't exactly pledge to help.

The players would prefer – and they included it in their original proposal – that the well-off owners simply share more of their revenues to help keep the smaller markets afloat. Of course they would.

The large-market owners – who generally paid much more for their more valuable franchises than their peers –would prefer to have more of a 50-50 split of revenues before they talk about sharing more of the profits with their smaller, money-losing siblings. Why give more of the profits to their league competitors, they argue, when they already give more than half their revenues to the players?

More dire, why keep other teams afloat when they could theoretically just contract those teams, stem the losses – and oops, eliminate several player jobs?

It's in both sides' interest to keep the league at 30 teams, or more, and generally pointed forward in growth. But each side prefers to kick the can. Each prefers to rob Peter to pay Paul – Though each side is happy to rob Patrick (the fan) whenever possible.

Neither will seriously give ground on the critical questions:

  • To what extent should the league share its profits and give up more than 50 percent of revenues to its players?
  • To what extent should the players shoulder the burden of the league operating so many money-losing franchises, with so many infamously poorly selected owners?
  • To what extent should the players concede that, until owning an NHL club becomes a more promising business proposition, the league isn't healthy enough to attract better owners and pay better wages?
  • Finally, to what extent should the players suffer the league's costs and losses when the NHL annually pats itself on the back about revenue growth? And when there are looming opportunities to tidy up its ship?

Until they find common ground on these philosophical issues, all they're doing is talking.

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