NHL The Latest Sports League To Face A Lockout

Eight years after the National Hockey League lost an entire year to a lockout, the NHL is in labor trouble again. A new lockout has cancelled the preseason and threatens the regular season. Robert Siegel talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis to find out why.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The National Hockey League has rejoined the ranks of pro sports with labor problems. The league this week locked out its players and canceled all preseason games this month. If you feel like you've heard this story before, that's probably because the NHL lost an entire season to a lockout eight years ago. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And tell me, having gone down this road in 2004-2005, why is the National Hockey League at a labor impasse again?

FATSIS: Yeah. You'd think, right, that having done this before, losing an entire season, embarrassing to fans, to everyone in the sports industry, you wouldn't want to do this again. On the other hand, NHL team owners gained enormous concessions from players the last time, a whole new and more favorable economic system because of that lockout. Why not do it again? The problem for the league this time from a public relations perspective is that reasons don't seem as clear-cut as they were before.

SIEGEL: Why don't the reasons seem as clear-cut as they did back then?

FATSIS: Because the NHL is thriving. Revenue has surged since that last lockout. It's up to about $3.3 billion a year from 2.1 billion. In a statement this week, the league said as much. It said that the economic system instituted after the last lockout has generated remarkable growth and momentum. But a majority of teams are unprofitable. The problem, the league maintains, is spending on player salaries. Under the old deal, players got 57 percent of league revenue.

And when the two sides agreed to that, it was in line with what the other leagues were doing, but National Basketball Association players accepted about half of league revenue as part of their most recent deal. Football players took a floor of 47 percent. The industry winds have shifted.

SIEGEL: So where do the two sides stand now in the conflict?

FATSIS: Well, the latest NHL proposal would drop the players' share of revenue to under 50 percent, 47 percent. The players' union is proposing a gradual reduction in the percentage but tied to revenue growth with no immediate cuts in salaries. The last time, the players took big cuts. And the players' union wants teams to share more of their revenue to help flatten the disparities between the wealthy teams, like the New York Rangers, Toronto, Montreal, and the money losers in the league.

It's important to note that the negotiation dynamics this time around are different. The players are led by the former baseball union boss, Donald Fehr. He's got the respect of the players. About 300 of them got together in New York last week in a show of solidarity, but he's also respected by management. And that's a big change from the last time around when there was bad blood everywhere.

SIEGEL: Now, the locked out NBA players went all over the world to play during last year's lockout. Have hockey players left North America yet?

FATSIS: They are leaving. About 60 players have signed with European teams. The Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin made his debut last night with Dynamo Moscow in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Other players are heading to Switzerland, the Czech Republic. Sweden's elite hockey league today was forced to let its teams sign NHL players to short-term contracts. It had tried to ban them. So Frolunda Hockey Club, here we come.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Now, the National Hockey League regular season is scheduled to start on October 11th. Any chance of that at all?

FATSIS: Well, there's always a chance. But if the end was near, I suspect that the union and player agents would be counseling players to turn down offers from Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Russia. I've got trouble believing that the sides would let it go to a full-season lockout again. But if it does last, the hottest hockey ticket in New York is going to be for games on January 19th and 20th when Dynamo Moscow takes on CSKA Moscow at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. That's the home of the new Brooklyn Nets basketball team, who are owned by a Russian billionaire.

SIEGEL: Finally, Stefan, this is the fourth pro sports lockout in the last year. The NBA and NFL locked out their players last year. The NFL is currently locking out its referees. Why this rash of lockouts?

FATSIS: You know, it's not just sports, Robert. The lockout has gained popularity in other industries too. There was an article in The New York Times about the subject a few months ago. An NFL management lawyer called the lockout a way for sports owners to reset their collective bargaining relations under the belief that unions had gained the upper hand over the past three decades. The idea pressure the workers into givebacks or other concessions. If you're not working, you're not getting paid.

And that's a popular tactic in sports because while athletes might make a lot more money than factory workers, say, they've got short careers, management's way of thinking, the players want to play at some point.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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