RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Professional hockey is getting close to the moment when it will have to cancel its entire season for the second time in eight years. So far, a lockout that began last September has forced games to be cancelled through the middle of December. The two sides in the National Hockey League labor dispute are expected to meet again today, after nearly 10 hours of talks yesterday.
NPR's Tom Goldman has more.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Why is the NHL at risk of scuttling a season again? There's always the fall-back answer when we're dealing with sports labor disputes - greed. Billionaire owners and millionaire players can't figure out how to divvy up, in this case, over $3 billion in revenue. But as tempting as that is, sports economics professor Todd Jewell doesn't think that answer works this time.
TODD JEWELL: I believe it is inappropriate to just write it off. There are some real serious economic issues that these people are dealing with..
GOLDMAN: The main one, expansion to markets without a strong hockey tradition, says Jewell. He chairs the Economics Department at North Texas University, close to where the NHL expanded in the 1990s.
JEWELL: Hockey country here in Dallas, Texas, no. Hockey country in Arizona, no. Hockey country in South Florida, no. You do not have a strong enough fan base in those areas to generate any long-term economic success.
GOLDMAN: There's the long-term fix, shrinking the league. But that would mean players losing jobs owners losing franchises. No one wants to do that, at least now. So, Jewell says, the NHL is trying to keep profitable what he calls a bad business model, by trying to control its costs.
Thus, the owner's demand to decrease the amount of hockey-related revenues going to players' salaries. The stalemate, mainly over distribution of dollars, has gone on longer than many observers expected. And it has messed up the rhythm of another season.
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GOLDMAN: There's no hockey night in Canada blaring from TV sets on Saturday nights; no NHL highlights for fans to recount at the office the next day. But Jim Boone, who lives in Ottawa, says the fans' role in this is not just as victim. Boone helped start the NHL Fans' Association in 1998. He believes undying loyalty, by the hockey-loving public, emboldened players and owners to take hard lines in the current dispute.
JIM BOONE: That's a huge part of their thinking. Unfortunately, after the last lockout, everybody did comeback.
GOLDMAN: According to Forbes, 25 of 30 teams had increased attendance the year after the 2004-2005 season was cancelled. And it's grown steadily since then. NHL teams rely mostly on gate receipts for their revenues. That's our money, says Boone, that owners and players are fighting over. He thinks whenever the dispute ends, fans are going to stay away a lot more than in the past. And those who go back, like Jim Boone, should stage what he calls micro protests.
BOONE: Going to the concession stand, buying two beers a game, maybe I'm going to buy one. Going to 10 games a year here in Ottawa, maybe I'm only going to go to two or three. I'm going to do my best to make them feel it.
GOLDMAN: Well, of course, people listening would say if you're going to do your best, you just don't go.
BOONE: Well, no. I have to go. People listening who are thinking that don't understand.
GOLDMAN: Here's what is understood: It's reported the two sides were cautiously optimistic after yesterday's talks. That's a start. But that optimism has to get a lot less cautious - soon, if the NHL doesn't want to lose another full season.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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