With NFL labor talks in a standstill, it’s quite possible that there will be no football played in the states this coming September. If you think you’d get a bad case of football withdrawal by next week, wait ‘til September when you’d be madly searching for the Toronto Argonauts-Ottawa Rough Riders epic somewhere on the Internet. Or maybe catch that Arena League game on the NFL Network you have been waiting to see.
More sports leagues than the NFL have issues that might be halting play before next season. All four major sports leagues are facing potential shutdowns. It wouldn’t be the first time for stadiums & arenas to have no cheering fans in them, either. Baseball has had eight work stoppages, the NHL and NBA three apiece, and the NFL two. Some lasted a few days, others a few weeks, and one even wiped out the whole entire season and the playoffs.
To be sure, labor trouble isn’t confined to American sports. Sports leagues from Asia to Europe have had games canceled or postponed because of issues between players and management. As professional athletes earn more money, their collective representation becomes more powerful. And with additional revenues coming from television, endorsement deals and increased attendance, millions and billions of dollars are at stake in these negotiations. No matter what country you play in, there is always a debate over money.
Sometimes the players have their way. Baseball, in particularly, has the most powerful union and its players have been able to get the owners to cave time and again because of their solidarity. At other times, the owners win big. The best such example was the 1987 NFL strike, in which the owners all but annihilated the players union by fielding replacement players (scabs) and cracked the union ranks by encouraging stars to cross the picket line.
And there are cases when strikes are purely symbolic, with both the players and management unable to do much about decisions made by a higher power. No, God may not care who wins or loses, but courts surely decide arguments in someone’s favor and it’s not always strictly along labor lines.
The 1995 Bosman Ruling by the European Court of Justice, which caused a brief strike in Italy’s Serie A, famously made a few players and teams very rich while leaving others – players and teams alike – either without a job or bankrupt. Sometimes it is not up to the players or the teams to show who has the true power in negotiations.
When courts don’t intervene, it’s then up to the warring sides to come to some kind of middle ground. While the average fan cannot find himself sympathizing with either the millionaires or the billionaires, it’s important to realize that professional sports is a business that goes way beyond the fun and games. There is more concern for the dollars lost & gained rather than the faces in the crowd.
George Santayana famously cautioned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, no time is like the present for some history lessons. Let’s recap some of the pasts strikes and work stoppages to see just how sports has not just affected the players and owners, but the fans as well.
The NHL became the first major North American sports league in history to cancel a whole season, as recently as 1994-95, over a labor dispute. For the first time since 1919, the Stanley Cup was not awarded at the end of the season. That dispute — where the main issue was the salary cap — lasted 310 days and caused the cancellation of 1,230 games.
A salary cap was instituted, to be adjusted annually to guarantee players 54 percent of NHL revenues. A salary floor was also implemented, and player contracts were to be guaranteed. Revenue sharing and two-way salary arbitration were ushered in.
The 1987 season was the last time the NFL experienced a work stoppage. Players went on strike as they argued for liberalized free agency rules. However, only 14 games were lost that season and it was seen as a big win for the owners. 42 were played by the replacement players.
The league had another work stoppage in 1982, the result of a players’ strike over the sharing of revenue with owners. There were 98 games canceled that season and by the time play resumed, both sides claimed victory. It seems with the NFL, history does repeat itself. Despite abbreviated regular seasons in both strike years, the NFL still staged the Super Bowl.
The main issue in this year’s ongoing NFL labor dispute revolves around the splitting of a $9 billion revenue pool. Owners want a bigger share while players are reluctant to agree until they’re provided with transparent financial data from the league. Other issues under discussion & dropped are: expanding the regular season to 18 games (not happening), instituting a rookie wage scale, and improving benefits for current and retired players.
The 1998 NBA season was shortened from 82 games to 50. A total of 928 games were lost. It was the first NBA work stoppage that resulted in a loss of games.
The owners wanted a cap for the league’s highest paid players and a larger share of the revenue. The players were relatively happy with the current structure but wanted an increase to the league minimum. The lockout swung in the owners’ favor when an arbitrator ruled that the owners didn’t have to pay the players their guaranteed salaries while play was halted.
Commissioner David Stern set a deadline of Jan. 7 to get a deal done or he would cancel the season. A deal was reached on Jan. 6 that most believe favored the owners. Salaries were capped at $9-14 million, depending on years of service and a pay scale was put in place for rookies. There was a modest raise to the league minimum. A first in NBA history.
The NBA was at its peak before the lockout and it took a big hit. Attendance and TV ratings declined and its biggest star, Michael Jordan, retired during the lockout. Only recently with stars like Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and LeBron James has the NBA been able to fully recover. The NHL saw a similar decline after it lost a year of play.
After the NHL, the next-highest number of games lost because of a work stoppage have both occurred in Major League Baseball. There were 920 games canceled in the 1994-95 strike, including the 1994 World Series. MLB also lost 712 games because of another strike in 1981.
In all four major North American sports leagues there seems to be a continued dispute in the same areas: salary and salary cap, revenue sharing from both the team and media outlets, and miscellaneous financial alternatives. This years NFL debate is the first one to have a suit centered on retired players health care. One will wonder if the other leagues will follow suit when the time comes.
There are labor disputes all the time. The Teamsters, AFL/CIO, UFCW, Air Traffic Controllers, Cab Drivers, and dozens of other unions have either gone on strike or had a work stoppage. They get attention from everyone, but not the same amount professional sports gets. Plus, fans always seem to be caught in the middle of a sports strike or lockout. You do not see fans complaining when Wal Mart employees are not working, do you?
As it stands now, football seems like a dream come September. The other major sports in North America seem to have their issues looming on the horizon. This is a vicious cycle. If the players and owners can not learn now, then when will they? How long do they expect the fans to to wait? No matter what sport you follow the most, when there is a strike or work stoppage, the fans seem to wait for the outcome more than the parties involved.
(Statistics & dates compiled from Wikipedia)