There is no professional sport working harder at marginalizing itself than the National Hockey League.
We’ve gotten used to the occasional strike or lockout in professional sports. It’s been part of the landscape for decades. But this kind of dispute is infrequent, in large part because owners and players seem to realize that their wrangles over money are largely meaningless to the legions of fans who love to watch the games and follow the subplots and drama. Those fans form the foundation of their wealth.
In the past couple of years, there have been labor disputes in three of the four top professional team sports — football, hockey and basketball. But the NHL has distinguished itself for throwing itself over a self-indulgent cliff.
One-third of this year’s season has been canceled due to a player lockout. There were some efforts made at getting the two sides together this week, but if the talks break down, there is a real chance that the entire season will be canceled.
The NHL infamously canceled its entire 2004-2005 season due to a labor dispute that resulted in a lockout. It seemed poised to cancel the next season, or perhaps bring in “scab” players. But both sides came to that magic realization that fans had become alienated and the sport was losing support. Things were patched up, problems with the sport itself were fixed, and the games resumed.
Then, the improbable happened. The NHL became one of those rare labor dispute success stories, with profits setting new records each year. Indeed, last season was the most profitable and successful the sport has ever seen, with some $2.9 billion in revenues (by comparison, the National Football League brought in $9.5 billion, Major League Baseball brought in $7.7 billion and the National Basketball Association brought in $4.3 billion).
That glut of money has fattened the appetite of both sides in this dispute. Both want a bigger share of what the fans and sponsors are shelling out. Both sides want more control over the inner workings of the sport. And so both appear willing to risk another no-show season to get what they want.
Perhaps the NHL ownership, and the players to a lesser degree, feel that they are immune to turning off fans and trickling the spigot of money that has been flowing their way in recent years. Perhaps they are right.
Let’s hope they learn the kind of lesson that the NFL learned earlier this year when it brought in unqualified referees and saw disastrous results.
Fans shouldn’t allow themselves to become willing dupes in this. The NHL needs to respect the foundation of its success — the fans — and remember that the sport is nothing if it doesn’t return the loyalty that its fans have granted.