The deadline to complete a new deal is Sept. 15. That’s when the National Hockey League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. It’s also when, absent a deal, the NHL appears willing to institute a season-threatening lockout of its players.
The stakes are large. According to the owners, the financial survival of the NHL is on the line. They contend the NHL as a whole has lost more than $500 million in the past two years under the current agreement. The status quo, they say, is unacceptable.
The players largely disagree. They contend the owners overstated their expenses and understated their revenue in measuring their “losses.”
At stake for the players? Their ability to be fully compensated by the market for their talents. In short, they believe their livelihoods are on the line.
How should we judge this negotiation as it’s played out in the next two weeks and possibly beyond?
Here are the key negotiation elements to watch, from an uninvolved bystander:
1. Evaluate their leverage. The owners have socked away with the league more than $300 million in the past few years in preparation for a possible lockout. So if they lock out the players and end up canceling this season, they appear financially prepared to ride it out.
Some teams, including the Coyotes, even suggest they would do better financially with a canceled season than if they had to continue under the current agreement.
The players, by contrast, do not appear to have financially planned as well for a lockout. While they have been told to plan for it and, at one point, appear to have been informed there was a 90 percent chance of a canceled season, the extent to which they have set aside their personal funds is unknown.
This, however, they do know — their NHL paychecks will stop. And this invariably will hurt many and weaken their leverage.
Watch how much this hurts them. The more they hurt or likely will be hurt, the greater the likelihood they will make substantial concessions.
2. Measure their level of public rhetoric. On Aug. 26, after two days of negotiating, NHL Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Bill Daly called the union’s negotiating efforts a “charade” and accused them of “having no interest in negotiating or making a deal that would save the start of the season.”
True or not, this level of heated and inflammatory public rhetoric and name-calling illustrates the animosity involved in these negotiations.
But look for a deal relatively soon when they stop talking to the press, lower the level of their personal and public rhetoric, and/or start using terms like “constructive” to describe their negotiations.
3. Expect a marathon session in mid-September. There are certain points in time during negotiations that parties are more likely to reach a deal. One of them is at or near true deadlines. So watch for increasing movement from both sides as we approach Sept. 15.
The next possible deadline will be the drop-dead point at which the owners consider canceling the season. Keep an eye out for the announcement of this date, if it comes to this.
4. Watch the winner of the PR battle. Finally, the great unknown factor here relates to fan support. If you hear hockey fans clearly expressing sympathy for one or the other party or see this in public surveys, look for a deal to occur fairly quickly.
Why? Neither the owners nor the players can afford to lose a substantial amount of fan support.
Published September 3, 2004 The Business Journal