Thursday, August 05, 2004

"Who's that goat-legged fellow, Smithers? I like the cut of his jib."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is spinning like crazy, trying to gain popular support for a hardline stance against the players' union in ongoing contract negotiations (I decline to refer to NHL players as "labour"). No, he's not Satan, but he's certainly got a problem.

The whole back and forth reminds me a lot of the frequently aforementioned federal-provincial health negotiations, in the sense that both sides refuse to be candid about what the actual problem is. The difference, of course, is that management-union negotiations are supposed to be like that, and if I don't like the result, I can choose to stop paying.

I may get into more detail about this another day, but basically, I'm behind the players. No one has ever put a gun to an owner's head forcing him to sign a contract. Owners can even walk away from an arbitrator's decision. And the stated goal Bettman is pursuing, "cost certainty", is unlikely to draw much sympathy from people who run businesses in the non-sports world, i.e. the people who buy luxury boxes and advertise on the boards.

All the owners really have going for them is this alleged popular consensus that "these pro athletes make too much damn money". I've certainly heard lots of people speak these words, but the idea that fans do or will stay away in droves on principle, because of "greedy, high-priced players" is ba-loney. The dollar figures in and of themselves mean nothing. The day I hear someone say they're not going to the new Julia Roberts movie because she's getting paid too much, maybe I'll change my mind, but at present, unh-uh.

At the same time, I really think it's incumbent on the NHLPA to address the issue of the business as a whole. The NHL is presently pricing its fans out of the arenas; at least 20 of the 30 teams can only fill their buildings when their team is having serious success. Back to Julia Roberts - no one truly cares what she earns for acting, but when movie tickets are $14 each, more people stay home! If the NHLPA doesn't collaborate with the owners to allow ticket prices to come back down a bit, changes will happen jerkily instead - teams will fold, there will be less money out there for the players, and jobs will be lost.

In other words, in response to the NHLPA's demand for a "free market", I would say, be careful what you wish for.


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