Wait, did something happen to hockey?
Yeah, it looks like the NHL season won't start on time. The league locked out the players at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 16, after the collective bargaining agreement expired, and they haven't met since Sept. 14. They have an informal meeting scheduled for today, but it would take a miracle for the season to make its scheduled Oct. 11 start.
So players and fans are "out in the cold," as it were?
Don't make fun of hockey. Hockey has problems.
OK, fine. Why is there a lockout?
The owners are unhappy with the terms of the old collective bargaining agreement, the one that ended the last lockout back in 2005. Most of the 30 teams in the league lose money or make very little. According to Forbes, more than half of the franchises posted negative operating incomes in 2010-11. Only five teams—four of them Canadian—made more than $10 million. Owners don't want their several-hundred-million-dollar investments sucking wind, and so they're looking to pare down expenses.
Hang on, there are 30 teams in the NHL?
Yes, including teams in Columbus and Nashville.
Is there a city called Nashville in Canada?
No, that's the one in Tennessee.
They like hockey there?
Not really, no. Hence the money problems.
And how do the owners plan to balance their books?
By giving less money to the players. Right now, the NHL's salary cap and salary floor are tied to overall revenue, which was $3.3 billion last year. Players are supposed to receive 57 percent of that. According to the Canadian Press, the most recent owners' proposal cuts the players' share from 57 percent to 49 percent of league revenue next year. That figure would dwindle to 47 percent at the end of the six-year CBA.
Is 57 percent a lot?
Sort of. After the NBA lockout last year, basketball players got 51.2 percent of basketball-related income for 2011-12, and the figure will fall to 49 percent later in the deal. As of 2011, MLB players got 51 percent of baseball revenue. The NFLPA said players got 55 percent of league revenue in 2011.
But if players getting 57 percent of hockey-related income was good enough for the owners in 2005, why doesn't it work now?
The league didn't anticipate the kind of revenue growth it had. In 2005, the players didn't want their cap linked to revenues, so they offered a flat $49 million cap per team, and the owners rejected it. That was too much. Skip to the present. Based on last year's league revenue, the 57 percent share means the NHL's 2012-13 salary cap would be $70.2 million per team.
So the league has to shut down because it's making too much money?
More or less! The league as a whole grew at approximately seven percent per year since the last lockout. But the new wealth didn't enrich everyone. Most franchises—especially the usual dogs, the Phoenix Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the like—entered the past CBA while poor and emerged from it even poorer. The money went to the richest teams, the ones located in places where people have money and like hockey. So they got even richer and drove the cap upward, squeezing the poor teams even harder.
Huh. So it seems like this is really a feud between owners, rather than between owners and players.
Exactly. The big-market guys have entirely different priorities than the small-market guys, and we can't tell which group will dictate management's stance, because the league has a gag order on everyone who isn't in the commissioner's office. Most modern sports lockouts resemble the NHL's struggle: The NFL lockout was at least in part a battle between the owners with new, revenue-rich stadiums and those with older buildings and relatively poorer teams. The NBA lockout was more of the same, with Jerry Buss and Jim Dolan eager to settle, and Portland and Utah and Denver squawking defiantly. The players had no meaningful hand in building these economic structures—Bettman was the major force behind hockey expansion—but they have to work within them.