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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
All-round sports fans keep track of the calendar by the big sports event that takes place that week. The World Series, it must be early October. The Indy 500, it's Memorial Day weekend. The Final Four, that's March Madness. And right on the heels of the SuperBowl, which means we've just hit Ground Hog Day, comes the NHL All-Star game. The best on the ice were supposed to skate this Sunday. Instead, there will be the final, last-ditch meetings to determine if there will be an NHL season at all this year.
The impasse between owners and players in professional hockey started before the season even began. And, unlike most strikes where the layers of impasse are tangled and complicated, this argument is simple and one-dimensional. The owners want a salary cap, a finite number of dollars paid to players based on revenue. The players have drawn a hard line on the ice for their part: they will accept no form of salary cap.
The owners admit they made a mistake ten years ago, when the last NHL strike meant the first 103 games of the '93-'94 season were cancelled. Coming back from that strike meant expansion and salaries bumped from pre-strike numbers of an average $271,000 to post-strike numbers of $572,000. Now, only a decade later, the average salary in the NHL is $1.8 million. Owners claim without a salary cap, they can't be guaranteed cost certainty. Players claim the owners haven't opened their books because that would unveil millions of dollars of unreported revenue. Four teams did give access to their books and, sure enough, $52 million of unreported revenue were discovered.
It has been suggested, and I'm confounded as to why this solution hasn't' been implemented to date, that a third-party accounting firm make a detailed financial analysis of the league. Then both sides would have hard-and-fast numbers in front of them. Is the no-limit salary system really keeping the owners from fair profit? Or will the players simply have to live with a cap to make the league solvent? It seems so straightforward.
All the while the folks in the center of the hockey ice storm have their heads buried in spread sheets and continue to crunch and recrunch the numbers, they have completely lost perspective on what this dispute means to those of us outside the hockey world. Football, baseball, or basketball could lose an entire season and survive because the fan base for each of the Big Three is deep and loyal. But we don't even consider hockey a major sport any more. ESPN2 has been getting a .4 cable television rating for the replacement programming they've been running during the strike. That .4 is double what hockey was drawing. The new NBC deal for the NHL is less than half the former television deal.
I guess if you're a star playing for the Detroit Red Wings, you have rabid fans. You get the impression that there is a big audience out there, wanting to see you play, rooting for you to win the Stanley Cup as much as Philly fans were rooting for their Eagles to win the SuperBowl. But the sport's insiders need an ice cold wake-up to the fact that, outside their arenas, they have little clout and not much of a following. One hockey writer summed up this season's situation aptly: -This league has teetered too long on too steep a precipice.-
I've never been a hockey fan and this would seem a typical opportunity for me to say, -Adieu, NHL, I won't be missing you.- But the truth is I feel for the hockey fans who have been hurting this non-season. The game they love has been mismanaged. And if the season isn't salvaged come the end of this week-end, owners and players should take equal blame for losing sight of just how insignificant hockey is in the current pantheon of sport. As the Major League Soccer players just did, hockey pros should put a cap on their greed and realize how lucky they are to play this game and make a good living at that.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
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