Off the Cliff
The Union will never decertify. If they ever did, they would soon be scrambling to get the Union back. The top players would get a lot more money, but most players are below average and their salaries would fall. Contracts won’t have to be guaranteed.
The players also know that fans in small markets would put up with a league that was so unfair to the small markets. Hockey would not sell outside the big markets. Decertification would cost jobs.
I think the evidence strongly suggests that player salaries would go up significantly across the board if the NHLPA decertified.
The entire point of a collective agreement in sports is to restrain salaries. Most Unions negotiate for wage increases, sports Unions negotiate caps on wages both directly and indirectly through restrictions on free agency. In most industries, employers celebrate a decertification movement. In sports, employers sue to keep the Union in business. It is upside down world.
Why would salaries fall for the bottom half of the league? If the role player salaries were actually being propped up by the current minimum wage there would be lots of players at that salary level. Hardly any of them do that poorly. Why do any below average players make more than the minimum today? The vast majority of the grunts make far more than the minimum wage now and the vast majority of them would make far more than $500,000 if the NHLPA disappeared.
Finally, European football players seem to do all right on the wage scale. ESPN recently did a survey of payrolls in team sports. The top three teams – and ten of the top 20 team payrolls – are from European football.
On the jobs issue, fans in the “small” markets are hardly beating down the doors under the current system. That’s what makes them small. Rather than continue to prop them up, the market would rule if the Union decertified. (The market would also rule on player salaries. If I’m wrong on salaries, so be it. Players getting what they actually deserve would be a good thing wouldn’t it?)
It is important to note that the intent of antitrust legislation is to protect the consumer. The existing structure is familiar to us but the last thing it does is protect either the fan or the community. Competition is what keeps prices low.
Decertification might cost jobs – teams in certain markets could very well fail – but this is not a certainty. It is not hard to imagine more NHL teams and more jobs with three or four teams in Southern Ontario, three teams in Montreal and two in Vancouver. Is there any good reason for a Leaf monopoly in Toronto? How much does that cost hockey consumers in that city? Furthermore, some small market teams will find that they can make money despite small crowds by developing and selling players.
The Union is reluctant to decertify because nobody really knows how it will work out. In the short run, it would be chaotic but in the end I think it would be great for the fan.
I don’t think it will happen now – the player’s fear of the unknown is a powerful factor in favour of the status quo – but the players are beginning to understand that the status quo means they will get less every time they sit down at the bargaining table. Sooner or later the players will act to get out of an untenable situation but it is hard to blame them if they are reluctant to step off a cliff.
Still, the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned. At the bottom of the cliff is a system that will transfer money from the owners to the players – and more importantly – to the fans.