Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jockageddon 2011-2012

It has happened before. It will happen again.

Just in case you've been regarding sports as the one refuge from the heaping helping of bad news we're being treated to daily in current events, guess what: We may be heading into a veritable Jockageddon, the end of professional sports life as we know it.

ALL FOUR "major league" sports in North America could be headed for cataclysmic lockouts within the next 10 months. As in, shutting the whole thing down for a full year or more.

Funny thing is, the National Hockey League is considered, by far, to be the junior member of American "major league" sports, trailing Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League by light years in attendance, revenues, TV ratings and overall attention. In fact, in areas of the nation with no traditions as hockey strongholds, the NHL is rarely considered "major league at all."

Yet, despite the undisputed status of the NHL as the most borderline of the "major leagues," it is the NHL the other sports are now using as their role model in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations with their respective player unions.

Here's why.

Because the NHL busted its players' association to bits in their last CBA negotiation, which ended up with the lockout of 2004-05, that's why.

After cancelling a full season of hockey including the Stanley Cup playoffs, the owners ended up getting everything they wanted plus more, but the main thing they got was an across-the-board 24% reduction in player payrolls.

Yep, that's right. In one fell swoop, they chopped their payrolls by one-quarter.

Needless to say, that's the kind of numbers which make the eyes of any owner in any business light up like Christmas morning. Reduce your biggest single expense item by 1/4 by one stroke of the pen? Ho, ho, ho, you betcha!

Now you've probably noticed we are in a bit of an economic mess these days, and have been for almost three years now. I would certainly love to reduce my biggest expense by 1/4 just by saying so, and so would you, and so would Mike Ilitch, so would William Clay Ford, so would the Steinbrenner family, so would Jerry Jones, so would Mark Cuban and so would every owner in every professional sport.

The owners all scream, as they always have for 100 years and more, about all the money they claim to be losing. It's all BS, of course -- they're all making money and most of them, tons of it. But as most billionaires always do, they'll use the "economic crisis" as their rationalization as to why everything has to be torn to the ground, RIGHT NOW, and more important than anything else, THEY need to get to keep a lot more of the money.

So, basically, the other three professional sports, the "big three" to the NHL's junior-member status in the pecking order,  are going to follow the Roadmap to Prosperity mapped out by the NHL in 2004-05:

  1. Declare a lockout
  2. Cancel an entire season of competition
  3. With a new season approaching, impose an agreement on the players, completely dictated by you
  4. Tell the players they can either take it, go play in some other league, or go work at Burger World.

It worked before; the owners see no reason it shouldn't work again. So, they are all poised to follow the same basic template in order to bust the player unions to dust and impose the conditions they want. And, of course, the NHL intends to follow its own example in its own upcoming lockout.

Each individual sport has its own problems but really they end up being pretty similar: the owners want to assume complete control over every aspect of the game, and pay the players a hell of a lot less while doing it.

What the owners in all three sports want, and what they'll eventually get, will boil down to something like this:
  • Huge across-the-board reductions in salaries (both average and maximum)
  • Iron-clad salary caps -- no exceptions, grandfather clauses or other loopholes
  • Dramatically limited ability of players to negoitate for huge free-agent contracts
  • Complete elimination of no-cut contracts -- owners will be allowed to cut anybody any time they want
  • Dramatically-expanded authority of owners and league officials to impose disciplinary authority (suspensions, huge fines, contract terminations, lifetime bans) for behavior violations (criminal offenses, on-field actions, drug usage violations, etc etc). Basically when the league commissioner in each sport makes his decision on fines, supensions, etc etc., that is going to be it -- no more appeals. 

A lot of people say, "oh, don't be silly. The owners aren't going to go THAT far. If they get the pay cuts they want, why would they go for all that other stuff too?"

Well, why wouldn't they? If you're going to shut the whole shebang down for a year or more, are you going to do it for chicken change? If you're going to take hostages, might as well demand a big ransom. They're not going to do it for a 3% reductions in salaries. If you're going to go sit on Santa's lap and hold a gun to his head, you might as well throw everything you want on your gimme-gimme list. Plus, it fits in perfectly with the overall game plan of our modern billionaire class: go for unconditional victory.

They'll get it, too. Why? Because eventually, it'll go to the courts, and then to Congress (they'll eventually need antitrust exemptions to ram most of this stuff through).

And when things go to the courts and Congress, who wins?

The billionaires, that's who. The luxury boxes and free-food buffets at pro sports stadiums aren't packed with politicians and judges by any accident.


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