"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

NHL - Union Busting?

The Rocky Mountain News has an interesting take on the latest developments in the NHL lockout:

"TSN, an all-sports television network in Canada, said it obtained a copy of a confidential eight-page memorandum sent by the NHL to all the teams that states its intention to reject the union offer.
According to TSN, NHL vice president Bill Daly wrote in the memo that the union offer included 'necessary and significant short-term relief' for the league but 'falls well short of providing the fundamental systemic changes that are required to ensure that overall league economics remain in synch on a going-forward basis.'
Daly continued: 'There is virtually nothing in the union's proposal that would prevent the dollars 'saved' from being redirected right back into the player compensation system, such that the league's overall financial losses would approach current levels in only a matter of a couple of years.'
In other words, team owners are too irresponsible to keep a rein on player salaries and must have a mechanism that protects them from themselves. If the NHL is headed for financial ruin, well, just pin the blame on the players.
The union's proposal included a luxury tax that Bettman disdains. Why? Because it doesn't guarantee owners and general managers will behave in a fiscally responsible manner, so a hard salary cap is the only way to keep them in line.
In the NHL's previous proposals - back in the summer, in case you've forgotten - the players were offered 53 percent of revenues (down from the ridiculously high 75 percent they received last season) and a guaranteed average salary of $1.3 million (a $500,000 reduction).
So it was interesting last week, when the sides met for the first time in three months, that the union offered to slash contracts enough to lower the average salary to lower the average salary to $1,368,000.
Union executive director Bob Goodenow said the offer would save the league $528 million over the next three seasons, at least $570 million over a six-year period and allow teams a second chance at showing fiscal sanity.
It's unfortunate the owners don't trust themselves enough for that to happen.
The union proposed a 20 percent tax on team payrolls that exceed $45 million, 50 percent on those above $50 million and 60 percent on those over $60 million with the monies distributed to needy teams.
But after cutting costs by 24 percent, only three teams - New Jersey, Philadelphia and Toronto - would have to pay any tax based on full-season 2004-05 payrolls.
So why not lower the payroll thresholds and increase the tax at rates negotiated by the league and union?
Oh, that would require compromising. Can't have any of that.
Bettman and the owners also want to eliminate salary arbitration and make deeper reductions in entry-level contracts than the 65 percent cuts offered by the players.
Maybe Bettman really does want to cancel the season and declare a labor impasse. That would allow him to impose his own rules, invite players to show up next season and in effect bust the union.
NHL fans should prepare for a long, hard winter."
Is the NHL engaging in union-busting? Is this more about undermining the players' collective power than about fixing the finances of the league?
While I have been firmly behind the owners in their quest to bring some sort of fiscal sanity to the league, after the union's proposal last week I started to wonder if they'd gone too far. The union offer is extraordinarily generous. While in theory a salary cap is the most certain way to bring balance to the enterprise, it has become obvious that the players simply aren't ready for that. And the owners do bear the lion's share of responsibility for allowing salaries to spiral out of control.

The union is offering to take the hit in their own pockets in order to effectively erase the overspending of the last few years. In return, they are asking that the owners take it upon themselves to ensure that salaries remain sane.

That seems fair to me.

It's not the easiest way. At any moment, any owner could come down with a severe case of Steinbrenneritis (and, in fact, George Steinbrenner himself owns an NHL team) and blow league parity all to hell, albeit at the price of a hefty luxury tax. I'm a believer in salary caps, myself. I think the NHL needs one, and I think the MLB needs one. But these things take time and now is obviously not the time for the NHL.

If the owners can show themselves to be responsible stewards of the league, their arguments for a salary cap will hold a lot more water. They will be able to push for it on the grounds of equity, not simply because they trust each other even less than they trust the union.

0 rejoinders: