The NHL’s “ambitious” initial proposals towards a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association aren’t completely surprising, according to sports business and law expert Eric Macramalla.
But Macramalla, a partner at Gowlings, who hosts the weekly show Offside: The Business & Law of Sports on The Team 1200-AM, anticipates the union to respond quickly in kind.
“I would expect the union to be equally aggressive,” Macramalla said Monday. “Negotiations are full of ebbs and flows. If (the NHL) proposal has been accurately reported, I would also suspect an initial ambitious response from the players’ association, so it doesn’t seem like they’re delaying before they come back.”
Reports by RDS and the New York Post during the weekend suggested that the NHL asked players to accept 46 per cent of league-wide revenues (down from the current 57 per cent), along with an extension to 10 seasons of NHL service before unrestricted free agency (a jump from seven seasons), contract limits of five years, a bump in entry level contracts to five seasons (an increase from the current three years) and the elimination of salary arbitration for players.
So much for the previous niceties in public comments between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, executive director of the players’ association. Now that the serious business of negotiations has started towards a new deal – the existing CBA expires Sept. 15 – and the NHL has drawn a hard line in the ice, there’s a legitimate fear that the league could be headed towards yet another work stoppage, either delaying or cancelling the 2012-13 season altogether.
As hard as the proposals are, Macramalla says the NHL’s beginning stance is in keeping with what’s happened among the North America’s other major leagues.
When the NBA and its players’ association initiated talks towards a new agreement – the 2011-12 NBA season was delayed due to a lockout – the league originally asked players to accept 46 per cent of revenues, down from 57 per cent, exactly the same situation as the NHL.
Ultimately, NBA owners and players agreed to accept a 50/50 split of basketball related revenues.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, argues that rest of the sporting landscape has changed since the current NHL CBA was signed in 2005. NFL and Major League Baseball players receive 48 per cent of revenues.
“I’m not surprised the NHL has tried to align itself with the other leagues,” said Macramalla.
Fehr, he suggests, probably expected a hard line stance from the NHL because “it’s not his first dance.”
That doesn’t mean Fehr will accept the NHL’s arguments.
Back in 2005, when the NHL was adamant about the necessity of fixing a system it claimed didn’t work, the players’ association made considerable concessions, including accepting a salary cap and a 24 per cent rollback on all existing contracts.
Since the lockout, annual league-wide revenues have risen from $2.1 billion to more than $3 billion.
Considering that the league is thriving – the Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders are among the remaining struggling franchises – the union can justifiably argue why players need to give more back to the teams.
Fehr’s history as a negotiator for Major League Baseball players also reveals that he’s a proponent of as much player movement as possible. In addition to the NHL’s revenue sharing proposals, Macramalla suggests the players’ association won’t easily give in to a reduced free agency period or the elimination of salary arbitration.
“I don’t think Fehr will react well to putting further restrictions on player movement,” he said.
Before the 2004-05 work stoppage, players weren’t allowed to become unrestricted free agents until they turned 32. After the lockout, they could become free agents after seven seasons in the league. There were two consequences. Players in their late 20′s could strike it rich, selling their services to the highest bidder. The other development, perhaps originally unseen by the league, was that NHL teams began to sign star players in their early 20′s to lucrative long term contracts, effectively preventing them from becoming unrestricted free agents so early in their careers. That, it turn, helped drive up salaries.
Now, the league is trying to control some of that salary escalation by reducing player movement.
For all the doom and gloom about the potential for a lost season, there is room for at least some movement by the sides, according to Macramalla.
“All of these (NHL) proposals work together, there is a possibility of compromise on a number of points,” he said. “Salary arbitration is an obvious point of compromise for the NHL. But if they give (the players) that, they want the (players) to give them something. Maybe the players association is willing to negotiate a bit on the share of revenues, maybe down to 52 per cent. Maybe they’ll be willing to accept eight or nine years before unrestricted free agency or four years on entry level contracts.”
There’s a lot of hefty lifting to get from here to there and NHL fans might as well get prepared for a long, drawn out summer.