October 29, 2012
Work stoppages are nothing new in professional sports, especially in recent history. Baseball had a major issue in 1994, when the season abruptly ended in August, culminating in there being no postseason, the first time the World Series had not been contested since 1904 when John McGraw made the decision that the National League champion New York Giants were not going to participate.
The NBA had a lockout prior to the 1999-2000 season that led to a protracted 50 game schedule and then had another one that lingers fresh in the minds of basketball fans with last year’s extended, drawn out fiasco that led to the regular season being trimmed to 66 games with no contests taking place until Christmas. Fans especially loathed their team playing on back-to-back-to-back nights as it was almost a certainty that one, if not more, key players would sit out at least one contest during that time.
Even the NFL has had its share of ups and downs in recent years, though the last time they canceled any regular season contests was back in 1987, when one week of the slate was lost. That was immediately followed by three weeks of replacement games, which led to less than scintillating football. For example, the Bills started three different quarterbacks in those three weeks: Dan Manucci, Willie Totten and Brian McClure. Only McClure was victorious, managing to guide the Bills to two Todd Schlopy field goals in a boring 6-3 win over the Giants.
Last year’s lockout proved to be of little consequence in the way games were played, as only the Hall of Fame Game was canceled, along with offseason workouts. There was no threat to the regular season, things got underway and it’s been business as usual for the NFL since.
Then of course, you have the proverbial redheaded stepchild of the four major professional sports leagues, at least in the United States: the NHL.
Under the leadership of Gary Bettman, the NHL has suffered through multiple fallouts between owners and players and three prolonged work stoppages. The league had a shortened season in 1994-95, when instead of 84 games, teams played just 48. That season didn’t get underway until January 20, 1995, a full seven months after the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940.
There would be peace and harmony in the league for close to a decade before conflict over the collective bargaining agreement struck again. Following the conclusion of the 2003-04 campaign that saw the Tampa Bay Lightning lay claim to their first Stanley Cup championship, the league and players reached an impasse. The lockout between the two sides began on September 16, 2004 based on the root of all issues in pro sports: money. The league and owners wanted a bigger cut of hockey related revenues, while the players wanted what they felt they were due.
Unlike other stoppages, this one got ugly fast with no end in sight. There were significant differences of opinion when it came to how a deal should be structured, with the owners wanting a hard cap directly tied to league revenue in the $40 million range, while the players wanted nearly $52 million with no such tie to revenues. In the end, five months to the day after the lockout began, Bettman announced the cancellation of the entire 1,230 game schedule.
The decision was widely unpopular and heavily criticized. The NHL became the first professional sports league to completely obliterate an entire season, making it the laughingstock of the major pro leagues. In addition, it marked the first time since 1919 that the Stanley Cup was not awarded and that season came with a caveat: the Spanish flu pandemic that ripped through the globe, killing 20 to 50 million people, took its toll on both clubs. Montreal’s Joe Hall died and the series ended deadlocked at two wins apiece, with a tie.
The lockout was not officially lifted until July 22, 2005, following an extended ten day bargaining session between the two sides in an effort to avoid the loss of another season. The agreement was reached in principle on July 13, 87 percent of the players union approved of it on July 21; the owners followed a day later. The damage was already done, though other ventures like the Canadian Football League along with minor and junior league hockey saw massive attendance spikes.
The league sits much in the same precarious position right now as we trek toward Halloween. The league locked out the players on September 15 and no progress has been made. On September 19, all the preseason games for the month of September was scratched by the league and eight days later, the remainder of preseason contests through October 8 were wiped off the schedule. This immediately led to a hit to league revenues of over $100 million.
The regular season, which was slated to get underway on October 11, was postponed on October 4, with the first two weeks of the schedule were canceled, totaling 82 games. Eight days later, on October 19, the league wiped out the remaining October schedule, scrapping another 53 games from the books. A week later, the league announced the cancellation of the entire November schedule, dropping another 191 contests; in all, the league has watched 326 of its 1,230 game schedule fall by the wayside. Included in that were the Hall of Fame Game that is played the weekend of Hall of Fame inductions and the Black Friday contest that was to be the “Thanksgiving Showdown” on NBC.
It came out today that the crown jewel of the NHL’s regular season, the Winter Classic, is next on the chopping block. Bettman announced last week that the league would have to reach a decision quickly about whether to hold the game or not due to the amount of money that would need to be committed to the project. Sources close to the league familiar with the expected plans say that the NHL expects to announce the cancellation of the Winter Classic on Thursday barring some miraculous agreement, which is unlikely for a plethora of reasons.
Those reasons include the simple fact that there is no offer on the table: the league withdrew their proposal last week after a self-imposed deadline. Following that major issue, take into consideration that there are no meetings scheduled between the two sides. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said as much on Monday with this statement:
“No new news. We withdrew our most recent proposal on Friday, and now we are spending time thinking about our next proposal and how best to get closer to a resolution. We hope the union is doing the same thing. Given the fact that the union refused even to discuss our last proposal, it would appear that we still have a large gulf to bridge.” The two sides have not met since the league had a proposal two weeks ago. The union countered with three separate proposals, all of which were summarily rejected by the league in the span of ten minute and that was that.
The weather is expected to be a major deterrent as well: Hurricane Sandy has torn up the east coast of the United States and forced cancellations of flights in New York City, along with evacuations. The weather is expected to get worse over the next couple of days, making it extremely difficult to conduct face to face negotiations at this point in time. Where does that leave the thinning crowd of hockey fans in the United States?
The Winter Classic was a major boon for the league and drew interest back to it following the ill-fated lost season eight years ago. To drop this Winter Classic, especially one held between a pair of Original Six franchises with a rich tapestry of history like the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, may not be the death knell for the league as a whole but it could drive the final nail in the coffin of Bettman’s tarnished legacy. After all, the league cannot sustain another blow to its popularity.
More than 100,000 people were expected to turn out at Michigan Stadium for the clash on New Years’ Day, with millions more tuning in on television and catching footage on the internet. That seems to be all but gone at this point and while the league may once again rise from the ashes like a phoenix, how tarnished will it be and how jaded will the fans, who once supported it with zeal and unabashed excitement, respond?
Will there be anything left to cheer about when it’s all said and done? More pressing, will there be anyone left who cares?