Today, the sports reform project League of Fans sent a letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman urging the league to reach an agreement with the NHL Players Association to prevent a work stoppage. The league’s collective bargaining agreement expires on September 15 at which time the NHL is expected to lock-out the players in an effort to impose a salary cap which the players will not accept. A lengthy lockout would result in the cancellation of games and would threaten the entire 2004-2005 season. The letter follows.

Gary B. Bettman, Commissioner
National Hockey League

Dear Commissioner Bettman:

In the coming days, the National Hockey League has a unique opportunity to display to sports fans that there is still reason to cheer and support the league. But the conventional wisdom is that you will be locking-out the players when the collective bargaining agreement expires on September 15 because the NHL Players Association will not accept a salary cap and you are determined to impose one.

I am writing on behalf of League of Fans to urge that the NHL reach an agreement with the NHLPA to prevent a work stoppage. League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader which, along with many issues, promotes the interests of sports fans. Along these lines, League of Fans believes collective bargaining in sports leagues should take fans and host cities into account. Fans should have their interests in the resolution of disputes effectively expressed, and public entities which are subsidizing franchise owners should have the right to seek compensation for damages resulting from work stoppages.

While there has been ample coverage of the bickering between the NHL and NHLPA during negotiations, there has been very little written about the consumers that make the NHL possible — the fans. It would be a mistake to think that fans have not been impacted by talks to this point. And it would be a greater mistake to believe that fans would not have an impact on the NHL after another lockout. Especially at a time when the NHL is comparatively unpopular among fans who have other sports and entertainment options, the league should not take fans’ interests lightly.

Though some fans are in agreement with the league’s position against the players that there should be a salary cap system in the NHL, it is the position of League of Fans that the potential consequences of a lengthy lockout are not worth the hard-line stance taken by the league. Why is a salary cap the only solution the NHL will accept given the league’s grievances? The players union has stated it is willing to negotiate anything but a salary cap.

Mr. Bettman, the proposal that the NHLPA presented last October, which the NHL reportedly rejected, is a compromise which could successfully address the concerns of NHL owners without instituting a salary cap. This proposal appears, at the very least, to be a good starting point. League of Fans urges the NHL to revisit and negotiate from the NHLPA proposal, which suggests:

a) that all players take a 5 percent pay cut (saving owners money up front);

b) that teams with high payrolls pay a luxury tax (placing a drag on what the highest spending teams spend on players);

c) that significant revenue sharing be implemented (evening out the distribution of revenues, closing the profitability-gap between teams and encouraging league-wide competitive balance); and

d) that entry-level contracts be lowered and bonuses limited (helping to keep initial player costs down).

This proposal may be the best possibility for a resolution and the outright rejection of such a compromise leads one to wonder whether compromise is even an option, and demands answers as to whether the league is honestly attempting to avoid a lockout. Why is the NHL spending so much time trying to sway fans against players with its public relations strategy rather than concentrating its time and resources on negotiations with the NHLPA in an honest effort to reach an agreement?

High player salaries may contribute to the alienation of fans, but why are salaries to blame for the NHL’s current economic difficulties? With all of the luxury box-filled publicly-funded arenas and robust revenue growth in the NHL, league and franchise mismanagement and lack of revenue sharing is certainly more to blame. Will the NHL compensate the public entities that are subsidizing arenas for the benefit of owners should a lockout be imposed?

Team owners pay salaries as an investment based on what they believe players are worth. Given that ticket prices are a function of supply-and-demand, with owners typically putting prices at their highest revenue-generating potential regardless of how high or low player salaries are, the relationship between salaries and ticket prices has been overblown by the NHL in an effort to get fans on their side.

September 15 is an unmistakable crossroads for the NHL that will define its status for years to come. If the league and players cannot now find the motivation to begin a dialog of compromise to save hockey for millions of loyal consumers, then shame on the NHL which should learn that it can not thrive while taking the fans for granted.

I look forward to your response and resolution of this matter.


Shawn McCarthy, Project Director
League of Fans


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