Labor peace, but no victories

Labor peace, but no victories
January 6, 2013, 8:30 am
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How many fans will decide to withhold their wallets, and for how long? (AP)

It seems peace has been declared in the NHL Lockout. Not victory – only an idiot would think in those terms.

But the real issue now is not who got closer to their wish list filled (probably the NHL Players Association in that the owners found out they couldn’t kill Don Fehr, which was their home run), but the body count. Specifically:

•       How angry advertisers will be over the fact that it took so long for the two sides to understand that the deal is more important than the posturing.
•       How angry NBC will be over being held hostage at a time when its new sports network needed all the quality programming it could get.
•       How much more prestige/respect/tolerance Gary Bettman has lost for willingly being the owners’ abuse magnet.
•       How many fans decide to withhold their wallets, and for how long?

That’s a lot of collateral damage for what was ultimately a fight about personalities instead of asset division. In other words, what was largely a waste of everyone’s time.

In that way, the owners failed, because they now have to live with Fehr or his inheritors through a full CBA. They wanted the union crushed, as all owners do in all CBA negotiations, but in the alternative, they wanted Fehr driven out as previous union leadership has been chased.

Both sides lost gobs of money, of course – money they will have to be very creative and industrious to make up in the next few years before the inevitable end game – figuring out how to screw the system to one’s benefit – begins.

That is why all CBAs ultimately fail – because not enough people in the game want to honor its provisions, or even more laughable, the spirit of the provisions. The owners don’t like the players, hate the agents and don’t trust each other. The big revenue teams talk a good game about protecting the low revenue teams, but in reality couldn’t give even the minimal 30th of a damn about any of them.

Moreover, when the deals come due, they always hit on the same strategy – making the players fail for their own wacky business decisions. They got some of that again this time, but not enough to fully satisfy the have-nots.

So what has been gained, ultimately, is merely a cease fire, and an acknowledgement among the smart people in the game that this system hasn’t really provided the answers for the holes in the old system. The rich remain so, the poor remain so, and the middlemen feel squeezed and underappreciated.

That is, unless the moderate owners finally rise up and realize what the baseball owners deduced almost two decades ago – that making the deal matters more than who gets to die on the hill Assistant Commissioner Bill Daly spoke off back when ridiculous saber-rattling was the order the day.

That means that a power shift has to happen within the ownership hierarchy, and that the hardliners have to see that being a hardliner costs more money than is saved by squeezing the union’s shoes by making an enemy of its leadership. Bud Selig learned that after the 1995 baseball lockout, against the evil Fehr, and found a way to put the deal before the preening that has allowed baseball to grow sixfold in the last 17 years.

Where this truth leaves Bettman is an open question. His 524 days of lockout pay over almost 20 years on the job represents almost seven percent of his tenure (Bud Selig, hired about the same time, is at three percent), and the owners’ satisfaction with his willingness to play the bad guy will no doubt be discussed in the days after the deal is finally done.

And let’s remember that Bettman is an employee here, serving at the pleasure of whatever sliver of the owners will support him. He has been a lightning rod for general dissatisfaction for three weeks short of two decades, and his ability to re-galvanize the sport to its benefactors and its benefactors to the sport will be examined to the sub-atomic level in the next few weeks or months.

Or should be.

As for the players’ side, there will be some resentment among them about what Fehr gave up, and how long it took for them to give it up, but given the 2005 lockout, which cost Bob Goodenow his job, and the turmoil that has followed, Fehr seems infinitely more stable than any of his predecessors.

But the business behind the sport has taken another bullet wound to the kneecap – well, not really taken as much as administered – and it will take awhile before its leadership can be taken seriously by anyone not already addicted to the game.

And then they all must decide how many more times they want to blow up Daly’s Hill before they all end up dead on it.