CHICAGO – My, how times have changed. In the past when it came to collective bargaining, the NHL came into the process with the clear intention of making seismic changes to the way it does business. That has been accomplished, so now the league is very comfortable painting itself as the conciliatory good guy. That much was evident when commissioner Gary Bettman met with the media as part of the league’s pre-season tour Thursday.
Make no mistake. This was a much more relaxed and affable Bettman than we’ve seen in previous showdowns with the NHL Players’ Association. At this stage in negotiations in the past, Bettman wore a game face and spent much of his time sharpening his claws. But with the positive momentum he and the union have fostered to this point, Bettman goes into further negotiations tomorrow in New York feeling downright fuzzy.
“We needed fundamental changes in the last two collective bargaining agreements,” Bettman said. “We ultimately got the changes we wanted and it has made the game stronger. The game is more competitive, more entertaining and more skillful, the business of the game, the strength of franchises is better, players have never made more. The things we sought that were important and we had to endure some difficult times for, ultimately got us to where we are. If you’re not dealing with issues at that level, hopefully sensibility prevails.”
To point to the lockouts and what came of them and use that to take credit for the competitive, entertainment and skill levels of the game is gilding the lily more than just a little. The CBA is not one iota responsible for the influx of sublime young talent that has come into the league in recent years. But it’s that momentum in the game that has Bettman now talking about “joint problem solving,” rather than ultimatums or threats. And that’s a good thing if you’re a fan of continuous hockey. The league has already laid its cards out by not exercising its right to opt out of this CBA by Sept. 1 and now the NHLPA faces the same decision in 10 days. If there were any doubt that Bettman is fitting the owners for white hats, just in case, there was not after he spoke Thursday.
“Obviously there are things we think are issues in the collective bargaining agreement,” Bettman said. “But when we balanced that against stability and labor peace, we came out in favor of moving forward without the possibility of distraction. Even on those issues where we’re focused where a change might be appropriate, we’ve decided now is not the time.”
Bettman did, however, drop a couple of interesting nuggets as to what some of the bigger issues are. The players have made no secret that escrow, the practice where players have 12-14 percent taken off their paychecks, then usually get a couple percent back when the league’s finances are finalized, is the most significant one. But Bettman was quick to point out that he believes the issue of escrow is widely misunderstood. And it’s hard to argue with him on that one.
Bettman said that when the system was first established, it was decided that the upper limit of the cap would be $8 million higher than the midpoint. In the last round of negotiations, the NHLPA wanted it to be raised by 15 percent, which actually takes the upper level to about $11 million over the midpoint. Bettman said that of the $200 million that was paid by the players in escrow last season, $50 million of it was because of that provision. “Maybe we would have been better off not agreeing with the 15 percent last negotiation, although my attitude at the time was, ‘If that’s what you want to do, it’s OK with us,’ ” Bettman said. He also said that signing bonuses and front-loaded contracts skew the numbers and aggravate escrow even more. Bettman also said because the players “thoroughly scrub the numbers” every year means players are getting their refunds from escrow roughly 18 months after the fact.
“We can set the cap lower, we can fix the front-loaded contracts, we can address signing bonuses,” Bettman said. “It depends. This is joint problem solving because at the end of the day, we agreed that we would pay 50 percent, no more, no less. The only question is what is the mechanism that gets you there? And that’s where I think there is a lot of confusion. At the end of the day, the players’ association, with the players, has to figure out how they want to approach it and we have to figure out what we’re comfortable with.”
Nothing will mitigate escrow more than higher revenues and Bettman is optimistic about that. Player tracking, which will be a boon to legalized gambling, is expected to be in effect across the board by the playoffs. The U.S. television deal expires in 2021-22, but renewal negotiations will begin soon. Under the 10-year deal, NBC and NBC SportsNet pay the league $200 million per year, a figure some think could rise to as high as $750 million yearly with a new contract.
“U.S. media negotiations are coming up in an environment that we haven’t yet had an opportunity to negotiate in,” Bettman said. “NBC does a great job, we love them and we hope we’re in business for a long time. But we’re going to have to take a good look at the media landscape and determine what our value is moving forward.”
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