Hunter: Why the NHL Lockout Differs from the NFL

The NFL isn't the first professional sports league to follow the lockout path during a labor negotiation between its owners and players.

I have long feared that the 2004-05 NHL lockout could serve as a cautionary tale for NFL players about the dangers that can come with taking on an ownership base entrenched in a tough negotiating stance. 

As a history lesson, and hopefully ultimately to point out how our fight is different, let's look at some similarities and differences between the NHL lockout and the one currently facing the NFL.

Let's start with the obvious: both lockouts were executed under the eye of outside counsel union-breaker Bob Batterman

It should come as no surprise then, that both lockouts started in a similar fashion: The NFLPA and the NHLPA were both targets of lawsuits filed by their respective owners with the National Labor Relations Board for a failure to negotiate in good faith. 

The NHL suit went in favor of the players. I would expect the same to happen in our case, given that I sat in the room participating in the painstaking negotiations and saw the multiple proposals we made in a long and drawn out attempt to come to a resolution on our differences.

This is about where the similarities end, and that has to be a good thing for players and fans.  I say that because the NHL story ends like this: The first completely missed season by a professional sports league in North America; NHL players forced to take a deal that was even worse than the last offer on the table from ownership before the lockout began; and owners who suffered from  half a decade of slumping ticket sales and viewership in the wake of their work stoppage.

How is the NFL a different story?  Let's start with the big picture.  The NHL was hemorrhaging cash during its negotiations with players.  Owners lost less money in the lockout year than they would have lost in operating another season under the status quo. Even in the current NBA labor dispute, Commissioner David Stern has been very explicit in explaining that teams are losing around $400 million annually in their league. 

On the contrary, not a single NFL owner, not one time, has claimed that any team in our league has lost a penny.  In 2010, seventy of the one hundred most watched television shows of the entire year were NFL games.  Think about that for a second, despite all the huge sitcoms and reality TV shows like American Idol, 70% of the most watched shows on television were NFL games. Our Pro Bowl, which is admittedly the worst of the four major sports' All-Star games, had more viewers than Game 6 of the World Series.  The NFL has more revenue than the NHL, NBA, and MLB, COMBINED. 

Consider all that before I take the comparison a step further.  During the NHL lockout, the players scoffed at an offer to accept 54% of revenues as their new cap.  In our last deal, despite playing in a league with a drastically healthier financial situation, and larger rosters by team, players topped out at somewhere around 48-50% of revenues. All we want in this new deal is to stay at that level. 

Despite playing in a league with the most revenue, highest injury rates, and shortest careers, we are the only major pro sports league without guaranteed contracts.  Owners argue that they need a better risk-adjusted rate of return.  Yet, any of these 32 owners could sell their franchise for somewhere around a $1 billion if the year-over-year cash returns are not where they'd like them to be. 

Go walk around the hotel at next year's former player's convention.  After you've seen your tenth cane, fifth wheelchair, and second wife hoping their dementia-addled husband didn't wander off down the beach again, you might share in my slightly different interpretation of what constitutes a "risk-adjusted rate of return."  

Yes, we the NFL, players and owners, need to learn from the NHL's story.  Losing a season, really even one game, to this lockout would be a shame, a shame fueled by greed.  Neither side is or would be blameless.  I am just one voice amongst many trying to get a deal done.  I think both sides could benefit from a degree more of objectivity as it applies to what is fair in this fight. But if we use the NHL as our measuring stick, I have to think the lesson to be learned is that owners are getting a much better deal than they thought they were. 

For fans, hopefully that means a resolution will be reached before any games have to be cancelled.

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