Commentary: As lockout ends, NHL fans gain some leverage
North America is awash in perky, cheerful headlines that announce: "NHL Hockey is Back!"
The type size no doubt varies according to location. In Canada, the front pages are almost not big enough for those four words. The print shrinks as we move toward the equator. By the time we get to the southern United States, the news of the end of the lockout will be on page four next to the local bowling scores.
There is plenty of excitement in Minnesota, of course, where hockey roots run deep and NHL tradition is strong. And that's wonderful. But I have just one thing to say:
Anyone who grabs his or her checkbook and runs right back to an NHL arena -- whether it's Xcel Energy Center or Pepsi Center or Air Canada Centre -- is an idiot. Not only that, that person deserved the lockout. Because stupid people empower the National Hockey League to treat them like garbage.
Now that the millions and billions of dollars have been divvied up, the NHL will throw open the arena doors and expect everyday people to come back and fund the whole operation. The real bosses, the ones who pay the bills by buying the tickets and the merchandise and by fueling the radio and TV ratings, were not represented in the negotiations. They were just handed the tab.
So, again, anyone who blindly returns to the ticket window is a fool.
Now, I understand there is a lot of pent-up excitement in Minnesota. The Wild, a dormant franchise for the last three years, have upgraded their roster. Craig Leipold signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to mega-contracts just before the lockout. You can speculate as to whether Leipold, among the more hawkish owners, figured he'd be able to claw some of that money back later during the labor negotiations. At this point, it doesn't matter.
People are anticipating the newcomers' debut in Wild sweaters. And they have every right. Just as fans in other NHL cities have their own reasons for wanting to see their teams back on the ice.
But before I plunked down money, I'd want to know what the Wild were going to do for me. After being treated like I didn't exist, what's the discount? If I buy a ticket package, how many free ones do I get? What are you going to do for long-time ticket-holders next season?
In other words: What's the reward for loyalty in the face of disloyalty?
There has to be something. An autograph session or a couple of free hot dogs isn't going to cut it. The owners and players are happy with their shares of the dough. Now the people who actually pay the bills get to weigh in.
In the end, the labor agreement ended up pretty much like we all thought it would. They agreed on a 50-50 split of revenue. The owners gave in a little on a few things and the players gave in a little on a few things. This compromise could have been reached before Day One of the lockout.
After lollygagging and failing to seriously negotiate, the word "lockout" started flying months before the collective bargaining agreement expired. Both sides were more intent on rattling their sabers than trying to avoid a work stoppage.
Everyone had to posture and do the dance and strut around. It wasn't until the last minute, when both owners and players were about to lose the chance for any revenue this season, that an agreement was reached. Oh, and by the way, hockey fans across the continent will get to see their favorite teams again. And all the struggling businesses around the empty arenas might get to survive.
Well, here we are. The Wild might be halfway decent. But before you fork over your dough, you ought to ask the Wild what they are going to do for you. For the first time in months, you are no longer an afterthought. Now, the NHL and the Wild need you.
Or you could just run right back to the arena, no questions asked. But if you do, you deserve whatever you get. And what you will get is another lockout in exactly eight years, which is when this new labor agreement can be terminated by either side.
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