The National Hockey League is less than a week away from becoming the third major American sports league to lockout its players in the last 13 months, after owners in the National Football League and National Basketball Association forced their players off the job last year. Players and owners have until Saturday to reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement; otherwise, owners are committed to locking out players for the second time since 2004.
Contra 2004, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of a legitimate reason to lockout the players this time around. Back then, the league was in dire straits financially, and ownership had a semi-legitimate reason to jeopardize the entire season (even if I disagreed with them). That’s not the case this time around, as The Atlantic’s Armin Rosen outlined this week:
The NHL is in the middle of what should be its golden age. Twenty-one of the league’s teams played their home games at 95% capacity or higher last season; 16 of them sold out every home game. The league just signed the largest national television deal in its history, and last year marked the first time that every game of the two-month long Stanley Cup playoffs was available to American TV viewers. This year’s Winter Classic–if it happens–will draw over 100,000 fans to Michigan Stadium for a game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, teams with a combined franchise value of over $850 million. While the league is saddled with several struggling and probably non-viable franchises (the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes and reeling New York Islanders come to mind), there are hockey-mad markets on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border that could easily accommodate an NHL franchise. The NHL is a profitable league with a global profile, a stable of marketable stars, and actual growth potential. The pre-lockout mania of exploding salaries, unstable profits, and agonizing hockey is behind it.
It would be easy to think the NHL owners would have the incentive not to go through the pain of a lockout again. The 2004 lockout led to the league playing for years with no major network television deal in the United States, and league attendance and popularity fell off a cliff, at least until it was rescued by young stars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
The league is as healthy as it’s been in decades. Yes, salaries are up, but so are franchise values, and the league’s first national TV deal since the lockout added even more money to the league’s and owners coffers. But that doesn’t matter to the owners who are ready for another labor war. After all, the owners won the last lockout, extracting huge concessions from players who were desperate to get back on the ice, and there’s no reason to believe the owners won’t win again.
The looming NHL lockout is emblematic of corporate America’s view of collective bargaining and labor rights. American corporations are reporting record profits, but with plenty of labor sitting on the sidelines thanks to high unemployment, they are willing to shutdown production to extract what they want out of unionized workers to gain pennies on the dollar. Take Caterpillar, the heavy machinery giant that raked in record profits and paid its chief executive $17 million last year, but insisted on locking out its workers to freeze their pensions and wages. Compare that to the NHL or NFL, the league that locked out officials over pension and salary increases despite its $9 billion revenue haul and incredible economic health.
These fights aren’t just getting more common in sports, where labor fights are prominent and dominate the news. They’re happening across America, where lockouts now make up a record share of work stoppages. One thing, though, is clear: sports leagues and corporations aren’t locking out players and workers because they need to, they’re doing it because they can.