Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Strike four

As I used to say in my radio days, let's go to the phones:

"Budd, wondering what your take is on the NHL strike is and how it will affect the Buffalo area economically and spiritually?"

All right, I actually took this question on Facebook. But you get the idea.

Work stoppages in any area of life are never fun, but this is a peculiar one.

The NHL has had a long, odd labor history. You might recall way back when that the hockey players were well behind their pro sports comrades when it came to salaries, benefits, free agency, etc. It turned out that Alan Eagleson was a major reason why. Eagleson was first known as Bobby Orr's agent, and also became the head of the players' association. It turned out that he essentially sold the players out so he could make money on his own. This was rewarded with a jail term when Russ Conway did some outstanding investigative journalism into the situation and supplied evidence about the chicanery. 

A wall of mistrust between the players and owners went up right about then. I suppose some of it has come down in 20 years, but it's still been difficult whenever the two sides have met. No wonder the NHL missed some of the end of the 1991-92 season, the first half or so of the 1994-95 season, and all of the 2004-05 season. This is the fourth stoppage in 18 years.

Strikes and lockouts used to be unthinkable in pro sports. The baseball players changed that in 1972 when the first part of the season was missed while union head Marvin Miller and the union started to flex their muscles a bit. The football players followed a decade later, and eventually all of the sports joined in.

We've gotten used to the idea that millionaires and billionaires will disagree over large sums of money, and that the fans have little recourse to influence the situation. As a result, I think fans have become a little less angry when something does happen. We were shocked over the baseball strike in 1972. We were stunned when NFL owners came up with replacement players in 1987 (and deservedly so; that was one of the great frauds in recent sports history). We were disappointed when the NHL closed up shop for half a year in 1994, especially since the league was coming off a Rangers' Stanley Cup and seemed poised to make huge gains.

And we weren't too crushed when an entire NHL season was lost eight years ago. Some people said at the time that they'd never watch another pro hockey game, but really, who keeps track of how many people keep that vow? If people like to watch hockey, they usually won't deny themselves the pleasure when it comes back. And they did come back, in a big way, after 2005.

It brings us to now. As for economic effects, any such action isn't good news, particularly here. Some people will lose their jobs, although many of those positions are part-timers like concession workers, restaurant staffers, etc. Some small businesses (restaurant/bars, sporting goods/memorabilia, etc.) will take a hit for each game lost. About half of the money in the hockey business goes to the players, and it's a large number, of course -- which goes into investments or such items as out-of-town homes rather than into Western New York for the most part. My guess is that Sabres' games don't attract as many long-distance fans as the Bills (although there are many more games), so the tourism impact isn't huge.

As for the fans, if they aren't spending their money on hockey tickets, they probably are spending it on something else ... such as movies, etc. That's assuming that they'll get it back at some point, rather than leaving it as a credit toward future ticket purchases. Oh, and naturally, they'll be buying fewer newspapers, which has a large impact ... on my business. They won't be watching MSG or listening to WGR as much as well, so ad rates will go down and money won't be generated. And I'm not sure they care if anyone "wins" in the end of negotiations between players and owners.

My guess is that some wonder why a seemingly thriving game (overall revenues keep rising) wants to cut the players' salary percentage by several points. The owners threw around serious dollars before the moment of the lockout. It's easy to think that no matter what sort of deal is reach, some NHL owner will find new ways to break the spirit of the new CBA and shell out millions to get the best available talent.

Spiritually, it's more difficult to figure out. I've always thought the Bills represented something of an "us against them" attitude for Western New York. When Buffalo beat the Jets, it was something more of a football game -- it was our city taking on the New York metropolitan area, containing a huge and remarkable city, and winning .It's good to be in that sort of company; it makes us "major league."

There's a similar sort of pride when the Sabres do well, but not as much. In other words, it's always fun to beat Toronto and Boston. Still, the NHL's stage isn't as big and as bright as the NFL's, so the buzz is less.

The hockey season is arguably 10 to 14 games too long anyway, so a short lockout probably won't cause a spiritual void in casual fans. Heck, they might enjoy having a little extra money.

But once the Bills' fate is decided, one way or another, local sports fans are in the habit of turning toward the Sabres for entertainment. There will be a void if they aren't there.

So hurry up and get this settled, boys. Any minute now, Congress will start to look functional in comparison.

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