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Hey, fans are a ‘player’ in the CBA talks—just not a respected partner

Like the youngest kid in a large family (not to make this personal but I know that feeling) who gets ignored when the "serious" opinions are floated out there for important household debates, the ongoing CBA talks—or lack thereof—essentially neglect one of the major constituencies in the drama: we, the fans.

As we move into Part III of the Bettman era (and I'm not laying this on Prince Gary- as I've opined here before, he is just the highly-paid senior advisor and mouthpiece for the owners...) lockout movie "sequel", after the earlier disasters in '94 and '04, I think many of us (not all, I realize) believe greed is a central factor in why we have this “labour” dance every few years.  I know we all say it’s billionaires and millionaires, but it’s more than that for me.  I get that they are just finding any way they can to cut up the massive amounts of cash they all think they "deserve".  That’s human nature, I suppose.  Most of us are pretty greedy when push comes to shove.

It’s that I simply don’t believe or trust either side in this metaphorical luxury box mess.  Just when I’d like to, say, go back to my child-like faith in what ought to be in the world and support the players—even just a smidge—some dumb-ass player agent says one more ridiculously stupid thing and it just makes me all the more agitated. (I keep warning myself to stay off Twitter...)

Since my bar for the owners can’t get any lower to begin with, I’ll simply say that these two sides deserve one another. They are well-paired.

Some of you have heard me say many times, when I am “defending”  (though not really) the owners and Bettman:  there is no game without the owners.  As much as we need players, and we do, if the owners don’t put up the money to begin with, there is no game.  Full stop.  And there certainly would be no long-term, secure, guaranteed, one-hundred million dollar salaries for guys who—if they did not play hockey—could not earn that kind of money in any other occupation of their choosing.  Ever.  Not a chance. Not in a million years.

(Just one additional note.  If the sports world somehow changed radically tomorrow and these players had to go out and earn a living in some other fashion, or instead, had to accept a salary cap of, say, one million dollars per player a year, they would still run to play professional hockey. And I mean run.)

The owners, on the other hand, made their millions in most cases in business ventures not relating to their ownership of an NHL team. We may think the way these individuals or corporations run hockey franchises is none too smart, but they would all be able to survive and make their gazilions in other industries, unlike the players. (Not that Bettman has always exactly attracted the most, ah, honest of owners, eh...?)

I guess the thing that we need to recognize and accept is that they—and I mean both sides—simply don’t care about us.  Not that corporate entities ever really ‘care”.  Who's kidding who?  We are, as Bettman quite correctly said, always going to come back.   We’re fans, by definition.  This is what we do.  The sport provides us with an outlet, with entertainment, with a diversion.  There is value in that and the two sides play it for all it is worth—and more.  Threats of boycotts?  C'mon.  Fans always come back.  The owners know it.  The players know it.  Yes, the baseball lockout “hurt” the sport temporarily in ’94, but within a couple of years, those obviously juiced-up ballplayers created a huge resurgence in baseball with home run records- and the attendant media and fan frenzy.  Lots of media folks and management types (and we fans) knew the players were cheating, but hey, it helped re-invigorate the game.  No one seemed to care.  No fans complained at the time.

The hockey dispute in 2004-’05 saw some lost traction in a few U.S. markets, but those markets (let’s be honest) don’t really care about hockey anyway.  Hockey falls below baseball, football, college football, high school football, basketball and NASCAR.  I mean, there are nice pockets of passionate, thoughtful fans in some of those U.S. non-hockey markets but overall, if the claim is you have a hard time following the game because you can’t see the puck, I don’t know what to say.  Chances are we ought not depend on those folks to “grow” the game, I wouldn't think.  Until, as I've posted here often in the past, we eliminate a few teams (and a few NHLPA jobs) the current economic (and hockey quality) problems will remain—regardless of the economic model they agree upon.

Before I continue, let me state clearly:  no one cares about the fans.  Not a whit.  Lets not kid ourselves that players “care” more than the owners.  Oh, the players like to see bums in the seats and people making noise because it helps pump them up and achieve their goal of “winning”—and nowadays, making those salaries worth millions of dollars.  They love the glory, the entitlement that comes from the adulation they receive.  When their team wins the Cup, they'll stand up at the parade and "thank" the fans, but their sincerity goes about.....this far.

I don’t believe for a moment that anything these guys do, even their charitable pursuits, are about anything more than image.  (Why do we inevitably “hear” about all their “good works”?)  Are there some genuinely “good guys” out there?  I’m sure there are.  I’ve encountered some.  But generally speaking, I feel that professional athletes want to be seen to be doing the right thing.  In too many instances they wouldn’t do anything to help the everyday fan on the street—if it had to come out of their own pocket.  I can tell you from significant personal experience that many athletes are some of the most…how do I say this as nicely as possible….well, least likely to want to pay for anything- again, if it is coming out of their own pockets.  I’ll share some stories some day, without mentioning names…)

So no, they don't care- about we, the fans, and certainly not about all those whose work, businesses and livelihoods and families depend on NHL hockey and will be so severely impacted if there are no games this fall and winter.

But beyond the fact that the two sides don’t really care about the fans, there is more we need to come to grips with.  We are the spurned lover here.  We are the ones who miss “it” the most.  Yes, the players miss the buzz and the camaraderie (and the money, though they have a huge strike fund) when there are no games, but they’ve all made their money already anyway.  Heck, if they miss a season, the vast majority could still live off what they have already made for decades—without having to be what most of us would consider "prudent" in their spending.  Those who are eligible (or think they “need” it) will still make some cash playing in Europe or at worst, the minors. There are still revenues being generated (e.g. licensing sales) even in a lockout.

No, we are the ones who miss it most.  We build our schedules around the games.  We love to cheer, to yell, to complain about the Leafs when they “stink”.  We like to play line-matcher, arm-chair General Manager. All summer, we plan a roster for the next season.  We think about possible trades twelve months of the year.  When there are no games, we lose something.  Yes, most of us find (as many of us did during the aforementioned sports disputes) other, sometimes more useful, things to do with our time.  Or we contribute to the world in some positive fashion with our “found” time.  But we usually long for a return of the sport so many of us grew up loving, and the team (in my case, the blue and white) that we grew up following with a devotion that we don’t have for a lot of other things in our life besides our own families.

So at the end of the day, I have argued here, and always will, that whether we are season-ticket holders or not, we fans pay in some meaningful way for the salaries all of the owners and player (and agents) “earn”.  We pay for sports TV channels.  We buy licensed merchandize.  We purchase good and services from the hundreds of advertisers and sponsors connected to NHL hockey.  Even the little kid listening to Leaf games on the radio under his pillow at night is part of a “demographic” that advertisers pay for to connect with the parents who purchase the toys, sports cards, snacks and soft drinks for the kids who listen to the games.  It’s all a huge business cycle, and we are a big part of it, for sure.

And we are glad to be so, because we love the game.  We love hockey. And many of us love the Maple Leafs.  We may not love every player.  We may not love the coach.  We may not like what they’ve been doing for the past several years.  But there is this lingering desire to be part of something, to belong to something, to a special club.  To be a part of, in this case, Maple Leaf hockey and the history and the legacy that it still—despite too many losing seasons—represents.

But…and this is the very big but…this is part of why we keep coming back, why we accept being neglected and abused by the more powerful parties in this relationship.  Because, while we don’t want to admit it—while there would be no money, no game and no fame for all of them without us—we evidently need them more than they need us.


  1. Michael,

    That was so good, I read it twice. Any thoughts on what we could do as fans to let the clowns in the NHL and the NHLPA know that we are mad as hell and are going to take a lot more of the same?

    We really are stuck with very little choice but to continue along as the sad little sheep that we have become. I always say that I have cared less every time they do this, and it is true. It is also true that I still watch the games and give them page views via the internet. I am a poor, sad addict looking for my next fix of Maple Leaf hockey.

    Do you sometimes find yourself watching Leafs TV more or less because it is the last refuge available? I do and then 15 minutes later I change the channel hoping the real games start soon.

  2. Thanks Jim. I'm not particularly capable when it comes to creative protest- my sense is that, as fans, both sides would only pay attention if revenues linked back to fans dropped precipitously. That would require people not attending games in Canadian markets, not watching on TV, not purchasing merchandise after the lockout, etc.

    I don't foresee any of that happening, so we are reduced to forums such as this to share frustration...

  3. I'd have to disagree with your heading on this post. Fans aren't partners or players in these talks. We're the stupid golden geese that keep providing copious eggs to enrich the already wealthy farmers and farm hands who continue to prosper from our largesse. We're fed a rich mix of p.r.mush and occasional grains of truth in sports writers' fantasies on a daily basis that results in our producing the gold when required.
    You know what happened to the golden goose! Could it happen to the fans? Hardly likely in any established market, and certainly not in Toronto, where fans constantly pour millions of dollars into the coffers of one of the worst teams of the last 7 years.
    Outside of those established markets, and on US TV, it will be interesting to see if there's a fan bounce-back after a lengthy layoff. Hi Def TV has finally allowed US fans to be able to follow the puck, and audiences (and interest) have been growing as a result.
    I don't believe negotiations have to be taken to the old fashioned and outmoded strike/lockout stage. There's no grimy hardship here, no exploitation by robber barons. But we'll have to endure this unnecessary theater until each side feels they've lined their pockets to the max.
    And then the fans will be "important" again.

  4. Since the players could choose to strike and the owners can lock out the players, what if the fans chose to boycott the games... nope, heard it before and we won't do that, will we?

    Yes, I know there may be some fringe fan attrition and a few lost die-hards... so what could we do?

    Perhaps a campaign revolving around advertisers and the media.

    I know I wouldn't miss several PRODUCTS or most MEDIA PUNDITS at all! Of course, I would watch the game itself, but what if I/we boycotted ALL their other programming? What if someone had the contacts with said advertisers and media organizers (and the time to organize a campaign to boycott their programming) and a very real, intentional commitment to boycott the advertisers' products UNLESS these two categories of heavyweights 'weighed in' on the fans' behalf?!

    Sometimes, a few well-placed letters might light a fire where it will do some good.

    Those who take the time to write them, are presumed to speak for those who don't... and if enough people write these people (not on twitter or facebook, but) with actual paper and envelopes and add their 2-cents worth, plus a stamp, there might just be a voice heard in the debate that sounds a bit like our own!

    I would love the networks and advertisers to pressure the CBA protagonists into a quick resolution of the process, or threaten that they will effectively (strike/)lockout the players and owners from whatever their current (or future) contracts will allow, given that said contracts provide a massive portion of the league earnings. Hit 'em where it hurts, right where their greed needs a little 'come-uppance" or reality check.

    Thus far, we may have little effect, when we banded together and complained to the league and the NHLPA. However, a small number of networks and advertisers may be found to have a larger voice (that sounds a lot like our own), should we choose to give it a reason to engage.

    The players understand the loss of momentum in a game. They should see that a loss of momentum (with fragile markets and the media's interest in perpetuating and growing the game) could change the whole ultimate outcome ($$$) of the negotiation game they're presently playing. Owners understand the bottom line... no play... no (or significantly diminished) pay from their major contributors!

    Perhaps it's time to 'put the kids to bed without their supper' and remind them who feeds them on a regular basis (I've never resorted to this, but these 'kids' are a little more 'entitled' than mine).

  5. You've presented an approach that makes sense and could "move the needle", InTimeFor62. I just wonder how many fans would make/take the time to pursue action, beyond words?

    Much enjoyed your and Gerund's reflections on this.

  6. Michael,

    Very nicely put. We as fans are frustrated and feeling helpless in the wake of all this CBA nonsense.

    For those of us who grew up with the original six, at a time when tickets were affordable, players were not transient mercenaries and arenas were not built with corporate boxes as a driving force it is doubly frustrating.

    After Ted Lindsay's player association took hold, a cancer in the form of player agents entered the mix. Agents do not add anything to the game. they are driven by greed and have convinced the players that it's all about the money and the fans be damned. Team loyalty seems to be a thing of the past.

    I am none too thrilled with the owners either. Ticket prices have risen beyond the affordable for a goodly portion of the population. Ridiculous contracts are being offered and signed. Bettman has brought in some pretty seedy characters in the name of saving some moribund franchises.

    As a fan I am sick and tired of all the peripheral nonsense. Just play the game boys!!!!!

  7. You no doubt speak for a lot of people, Pete Cam.

    I was very young in the '50s when Lindsay,. as you say, and Doug Harvey and some of the boys tried to form a simple association to help the players with basic benefits. The owners reacted predictably.

    You're right Pete Cam- agents joined the fray and the scales of "balance" shifted. Now the players run the show.

    While the way players were treated in the '50s was unfair, what we're seeing now is, to me, just sad. It is the very definition of greed on all sides, though others may disagree, I realize.

    Thanks for telling it like it is, Pete Cam.

  8. I got over the last lockout mostly because I sided with the players at the time. Yeah some of them may be greedy and spoiled, but by and large, they MAKE the NHL. I was always suspicious of the owners' publicly stated finances, (still am), but in the end, they are business people. They and they alone dictate these huge salaries, and I never blamed the players for accepting what the owners were willing to give them.

    I still have a huge problem with the owners crying poor. After all, wasn't it cost certainty they were after last time when they fought for and received their salary cap? So maybe I still lean toward the players in this fight, but I'm starting to reach that breaking point. I like the point you make about us, the fans, being the forgotten entity in all this. I'm not sure I readily accept your assertion that without the owners, there would be no NHL. I think the market dictates itself, the fans want hockey on a large scale and I think major league hockey is going to happen in North America no matter what. I do know for certain that there would be no major league hockey without the fans. Therein lies your point, and such a valid one.

    It's been no secret to most of us that we are in fact taken for granted, that we are the sheeple who will continue to support their product year in and year out, and they do not put much effort to hold on to us. They are much more concerned with kissing up to the luxury box owners, the corporate sponsors, and those few of us who can actually afford season tickets. Such a shame, because this realization does eat away at our loyalty that we've carried for so many years, for many of us going back to the days before free agency even existed, before labour strife was even possible.

    I'd be a liar if I said if another lockout happens that I'll throw away my Leafs jersey and never come back. Like probably most readers here, I realize I'm far to loyal to a corporation that does not reciprocate. But I do know that I survived the last lockout just fine. As I'll do this time. As I get older I find that I appreciate that I can still skate with the younger guys in my beer league, and I find as much, and probably greater, joy in watching my son tend goal in his bantam games. If the entire NHL were to fold today and never return, I'll occupy myself until inevitably the true hockey fans and hockey market prop up another major league.

  9. Loved your comment today, Pete. Some of my (and my wife and I together) happiest and fondest memories has/have been watching our own youngsters "in action" over the past 25+ years. Watching kids who are out there simply because they just love it is a wonderful life experience.

    Professional hockey, of course, is a huge business. While the players still "love" it, money changes the equation. I think we all get that. It's a shame, but it is what it is.

    Such a solid post, thanks Pete.

  10. Excellent idea from InTimeFor62. In case anyone is interested below is a link to a page listing all NHL corporate marketing partners.

  11. i remember listening to leafs games on the radio under my pillow... ahhh good memories.

  12. I'm not sure it can be painted so much Good Guys and Bad Guys, although I agree that they deserve each other.
    The way I see it there is a lot of money and everyone wants it. Not that I feel sorry for them, but saying that someone has 'enough' money is hard. I mean if you were earning over a million and you buy a mansion and a porsche now you have to pay taxes, hydro, gas, insurance, etc. None of that is cheap, nobody wants to lose money they were counting on. Dan Ellis took a lot of flack a while ago for ranting about needing more money but that's exactly how it goes. Could they survive with less? Yes, but would you want to sell your family home because your boss docked your pay 24%? Of course you wouldn't, mansion or just a standard home it is the same.
    To say the players could be easily replaced is true, but the fact is they are the best in the world and they have earned what they are getting. And I don't think you can ever minimize someone's charitable work just because they get something out of it, name a good deed that isn't also somewhat selfish for the doer. Nobody would say these guys were bad if they didn't do something good with their money but they do it anyway because they know they are lucky. Blaming them for the media crawling over their every move and giving them credit is just silly.
    Do I want hockey back? Oh my lord yes. My son just turned two and I can finally start explaining things to him. But do I understand why this deal is so hard to get done? Yes again. I think it is crazy to rage against it though, which I think is the point of your whole article. We just have to sit back man, it is hard but no amount of boycotts or petitions is going to change that.

  13. It was all the more fun when you were supposed to be asleep, Alex!

  14. Thanks Chris. We can agree to disagree on a) the notion of having "enough" money and b) my assessment of their "charitable" work.

    It's a broad brush that I painted today, I realize, and yes, we all operate out of self-interest. But too many of these athletes have led entitled lives since they were quite young, so I don't cut them as much slack or have as much understanding as you do.

    Glad you posted.