Meltdown

Labor Dispute Cancels Entire 2004-05 Schedule

The Nhl's Lost Season

Precedent is set

will NBA follow?

The Future

February 17, 2005|By David Steele

SO A MAJOR North American professional sports league has nuked its entire season over a labor dispute. It can't get worse than that.

Of course, everybody said that when baseball canceled the World Series. And when the NFL put on scab games. And when baseball threatened to contract teams. How low can these pigs sink, we all wondered, just before finding out.

How much lower can a league sink now? We could find out as soon as this fall. The NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of June. The last time a contract between NBA owners and the players union expired, in the summer of 1998, a lockout ensued, and it didn't end until the drop-dead date had arrived. That was the closest to the brink any sport had gone since baseball's self-immolation in 1994.

The NHL threw itself over the precipice yesterday, and while it would seem obvious that its situation is too distinct from the other sports' to invite comparison, there's little reason to assume the ultimate negotiation tactic won't ever be used again.

All it would take is an argument like the one the NHL used: that the sport could not possibly survive under the economic system it operates under, and that it can't possibly lose as much money by shutting down for an entire year than it would if it kept paying those obscene salaries.

Apparently, there are enough people around to swallow that line to make it work. It's probably closest to being true in the NHL, considering there are teams legitimately on the verge of bankruptcy and that it has no national TV revenue to speak of. But as always, trust what pro sports owners tell you about their finances at your own risk.

On the other hand, there are certainly fewer sports fans swallowing it in the NHL than in the other sports, and fewer that will come running back whenever the owners and players get over themselves and decide to return to their chosen profession.

That might not be enough to keep the next league - and simply chronologically speaking, that would be the NBA - from dangling that out there. After all, it was the argument used when the league squeezed the union for what's generally considered a victory in 1998-99. And it worked. The players gave in at least partly because they couldn't withstand an entire season out, and didn't want to find out whether the owners could.

Plus, it became obvious that the league's reputation wouldn't survive a full-season shutdown. As it turned out, it has struggled since then with its reputation anyway. Yet the fans came back, and so did the ratings and the value of the teams and the TV money. It may only mean, however, that the public rage will be that much greater if next season is endangered in any way.

The NBA hasn't even hinted or threatened that this time. But don't be shocked if it tries. Leverage is everything in negotiations. The NHL exercised what probably is the only leverage it had. If it works - and it was starting to work at the 11th hour, when the union abandoned its longstanding resistance to a salary cap - then all's fair from now on.

And if by next season, the league draws fans to its side, if it convinces them that prices will go down and salaries will get under control and games will get back on TV, the balance tips to the owners across the board, in every sport, even ones in which players usually have their way.

Face it, extreme measures reflect poorly in the public mind, but they work. Using scabs in 1987 worked for the NFL; while players love the salaries and signing bonuses, the league has labor peace and a compliant union that rarely hassles them.

At least give baseball credit for not going off the deep end since 1994, having pulled back in 2002. Of course, the sport's bludgeon was the prospect of contraction, which has since quietly gone away. Besides, its own experience at ground zero is undergoing revision, now that it's clear that much of the game's renaissance since then was because of performance-enhanced players and records.

For what it's worth, tensions are already fairly high in negotiations between NBA owners and players. Formal talks are tentatively scheduled for this weekend in Denver during All-Star festivities. Commissioner David Stern and union head Billy Hunter will surely be asked about their hockey brethren. They surely will have answers, even if they don't make them public.

Most surely of all, both will be watching closely to see if the NHL's self-inflicted wound will be fatal.

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