Labour negotiations — like wars — require a significant amount of public support if they want to be successful.
And while I don’t want to be dismissive by comparing an actual war to the current NHL labour mess, I think there is a parallel that can be drawn between the two — at least when it comes to public perception.
The last CBA negotiation in 2004-2005 was widely viewed as a necessary fight for the NHL. Most fans agreed that a salary cap had to be implemented to lower player salaries. So when an entire season was lost, fans were willing to come back because it was deemed as an essential battle. By nature, people are willing to forgive a conflict if it’s deemed unavoidable.
This latest NHL lockout, however, is being viewed with a great deal of skepticism and suspicion from the average fan. The deeper we get into this mess, the more this is starting to look like a completely phony battle.
And I can’t help but think that Gary Bettman is morphing into George W. Bush before our very eyes.
When the former American president waged a war against Iraq in 2003 that had marginal public support, it ended up damaging his image beyond repair. They never found those weapons of mass destruction and before long, the general public realized that this was anything but a war of necessity. And when you force a needless battle on people, they tend to feel like they were deceived.
The worst fallout for Bush is that his credibility was never restored after fighting that unnecessary war. He became a caricature of himself, with every comment he made to the media mimicked and mocked for the duration of his presidency.
And right now, Bettman is in danger of following the same path. His smoking gun in these labour negotiations — his weapons of mass destruction, if you will — is to suggest that player salaries are still the overriding issue in the game. Prior to the lockout of 2004-05 (and how sad is it that we have to time-stamp these lockouts?), players’ salaries took up nearly 75 per cent of the revenue pie. That number was ridiculously out of touch with reality and everybody agreed that a market correction was needed.
This time, however, the NHL is being perceived as greedy — simply reaching further into the players’ pockets because they can. And as a result, Bettman is becoming the public whipping boy in these negotiations. Right now, Bettman has his own link on Deadspin — and that is never a good thing when you’re trying to win a PR battle.
His off-hand comment about rising jet fuel costs and massage therapy has been lampooned to no end.
Are we really expected to believe that the rising cost of jet fuel has been a major problem for the league? If so, why hasn’t this issue come up before? In the last two Stanley Cup finals, a team from the Eastern time zone has faced off against a team from the Pacific time zone.
And yet nobody from the NHL even suggested that a 2-3-2 format for the final series would be preferable to save money on jet fuel. When the teams traveled from Boston to Vancouver in 2011 and from New Jersey to Los Angeles in 2012, they left a pretty big carbon footprint.
When Bettman was asked earlier this summer how the NHL recovered from a cancelled season, he responded by saying, “because we have the best fans in the world.”
I have no doubt that Bettman was being honest and sincere in his response, but to many in the hockey world, his comment was interpreted as disingenuous. The underlying tone, suggest his detractors, is that the commissioner thinks that NHL fans are gullible sheep.
And this is where the PR battle for Bettman appears to be at a tipping point. Judging by the players’ comments in New York last week, the commissioner has already lost his players. When a classy and elegant superstar like Teemu Selanne openly criticizes Bettman as he did on Monday, it speaks volumes about how popular the commissioner is inside locker rooms.
Once public perception is against you, it’s a runaway train that cannot be stopped. If Bettman loses the trust of the common fan — and all signs are pointing that way — it will be virtually impossible to re-gain it.
In the court of public opinion, this labour negotiation is a battle of choice and not necessity. So this time, fans won’t come flocking back if there is a prolonged lockout.
Seven years ago, Bettman and the owners touted the new collective bargaining agreement as one that would ensure long-term stability.
“One of the reasons we had to go through a difficult period through the work stoppage is because we didn’t have a system that worked and it was affecting our franchises’ health and what the game looked like on the ice,” Bettman was quoted as saying in 2008. “So, by creating a partnership with the players, by having a salary cap, we now have a system that works for everybody — but most importantly for our fans.”
When you read a quote like that it sounds like Bettman and the owners got everything they wanted in the last round of negotiations.
I guess the only thing they missed was a “Mission Accomplished” sign up at the NHL offices.