Sports fans' lack of interest in the hockey lockout was transformed Wednesday back into indifference to hockey itself as the league and the players union reached an agreement, though that's sort of like saying USC and Oklahoma reached an agreement in this year's Orange Bowl.
The owners won in a rout. The players, who started this process refusing to negotiate on a salary cap and refusing to have salaries tied to league revenues, agreed to a salary cap tied to 54 percent of league revenues. Plus a 24 percent across-the-board rollback of salaries.
All this after losing a season, which makes up a pretty hefty percentage of the lifetime earnings of even a player who has a long career. If the players union were a team, it would have to improve a hundredfold to be the 1974-75 Washington Capitals.
The details of the new six-year collective bargaining agreement won't be made public until it's ratified by the NHL Board of Governors and the players, which is expected next week. Various publications are reporting that it will include a salary cap of about $39 million and a floor around $21 million. Individual players' salaries will be limited to 20 percent of team payroll, or about $7.8 million.
According to reports, the top 10 teams will share revenue with the bottom 10, owners will be able to choose salary arbitration, not just players -- a huge victory for owners -- and teams will be able to buy out contracts at two-thirds of their value. There will also be new, lower limits on rookie salaries.
On the plus side for players, they'll be able to become unrestricted free agents earlier, though they won't be able to make nearly as much money as in the old system, and a higher minimum salary will help marginal players. These are tiny items.
We'll just have to wait and see about the big changes fans care about, alterations to the game itself. Everyone seems to agree that the NHL, lagging behind lawn darts and candlepin bowling on the sports landscape even before the lockout, had better do something to improve the product.
Even with the pro-offense rules changes that are likely coming down the pike, the owners and commissioner Gary Bettman may have won a hollow victory. They're standing astride the fallen NHL Players Association, arms raised, but of what value is it to gain total economic control over the burning husk of a once regionally popular niche sport that in the last 300 days has lost metric tons of fan goodwill, billions of dollars and a television contract?
We'll find out, I guess. My hunch: not much. As Wayne Gretzky, who owns the Phoenix Coyotes, put it, "At the end of the day, everybody lost."
But on the other hand, remember what Forbes magazine said the last time it looked at the NHL's finances, in November: Owning a hockey team, all by itself, isn't a great investment. As part of a larger business plan, though, it can be a gold mine.
One thing this resounding victory for the owners tells us is that the owners, for all their claims of poverty that led to the lockout in the first place, were strong enough economically to overpower the players and win the dispute without giving an inch.
Conciliatory ideas the players threw out in negotiations became part of the framework of the agreement. That doesn't happen unless one side is holding all of the chips.
When hockey players stop playing hockey, their revenue stream dries up. Not so for the owners, who can turn to other sources of revenue if their businesses are diversified, as most if not all of them are. The very process by which they won the labor struggle is the one that made their claims that they were going broke bogus.
A few weeks ago Flyers star Jeremy Roenick admitted that the players had made a mistake by underestimating the strength of the owners. In other words, their blunder was believing the owners when they cried poverty.
Even the '74-75 Capitals never screwed up that badly.
Now, if the owners can run their business as well as they ran this lockout, there might be hope for the NHL. Unfortunately, there's no evidence that they can do this. In fact, they don't even believe it themselves. The whole point of the salary cap is to police their own poor management behavior by forcing them to not offer players contracts they can't afford.
With that problem solved, it remains to be seen if they can solve the other, towering problems consigning their sport to the margins. The effort begins as soon as the six-year agreement is ratified, probably next week.
The sports world will (not) be watching.
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Another Fox slap to fans' faces [PERMALINK]
Did you see that banner that was draped over a billboard advertising a car at the All-Star Game Tuesday? It was supposed to look homemade, though it was suspiciously professional looking, and it had a URL on it. Fox's cameras lingered lovingly for a few moments, which if you were paying attention would have clued you in that the "homemade" banner was in fact an advertisement.
TV networks don't focus on banners showing nothing but a URL. What if it's a URL for a porn site, or a white-power site or a site about how much the TV network sucks?
The British Web site the Register reports that the banner was an ad for the very car company whose billboard was being partially covered.
So, OK. Fine. A little faux-guerrilla advertising. Nothing wrong with that.
What's wrong is Fox having its announcers lie to the audience about it.
"Somebody just unfurled a big banner behind left field," said Joe Buck, innocently enough as the broadcast returned from commercials for the bottom of the third inning. He then spelled out the nonsense-acronym URL. "Tim [McCarver] will have to tell me what that means, I'm not sure. But someone went to a lot of trouble, obviously, to put it up."
Buck then described the first couple of pitches by Roy Oswalt to Johnny Damon before McCarver chimed in.
"I don't know what that sign means," McCarver said, "but 'hooray' is the first thing that comes to my mind." The acronym was semi-close to being a word-jumble of "hooray." Damon's infield hit on the next pitch effectively changed the subject.
Buck and McCarver both knew full well who put the banner in left field. This was Fox's latest attempt to hide advertising within coverage of the game, a particularly insulting move it pretty much perfected with last year's in-game interview with a character from a beer commercial.
I don't think baseball fans begrudge Fox or anybody else making money. But must we be slapped in the face at every turn? When Fox isn't busy insulting people we admire, it's lying to us.
Is it so difficult to just treat the game and its fans with a modicum of respect and dignity?
Previous column: Fox insults Ernie Harwell
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