The Players And Owners Might Get Back To Work, But What’s The Fan’s Way Back?

Updated: December 6, 2012 at 10:41 am by Brent Morris



Writing about CBA negotiations is tricky – by the time your article appears, the winds may have totally shifted. This article may indeed look ridiculous tomorrow.  

However, we stand today on Thursday, December 6 with the owners and players in talks for the third straight day, and while conflicting reports come out about the state of each side, it’s been made clear that both groups are incredibly close on most issues.  

It feels like the home stretch.  

Fans on Twitter are getting a little excited. Of course, fans on Twitter don’t make up the bulk of the NHL-going public – those who tweet about hockey are the die-hards. The league could lock out for 3 years and we’d follow all the court machinactions with the same passion we watch the games. What’s going to get your Gordie Schmo and Wendel Six-Pack back in front of the TV watching Hockey Night in Canada? 

Player Movement as Entertainment

Longtime MLBPA head Marvin Miller died last week, which prompted player and journalist paeans to the once union leader.

One of the more interesting praises I read came from Twitter, where a journalist (forgive me, I’ve forgotten who) said that the abolition of MLB’s reserve clause eventually led to the rise of sports talk radio. With player movement far more open and players free to choose where they wanted to go after a certain amount of service time, it changed the entire dynamic of a fan’s relationship to his team: now he could speculate about players who would be entering and exiting his favorite club.  

Fixing the home team was no longer left to the whims of ‘prospects’ or ‘bonus babies’, but bona fide MLB players who could arrive in the winter to salvage his summer. As dollar amounts of contracts were more often public and more stratospheric, fan interest only grew, to the point where 24 hour sports talk radio stations began.

It has only spiraled upwards for everyone from there – ESPN has emulated the model by ditching programming unusual sports in the daytime in favor of endless panel shows where people who shout a lot debate the relevant topics of the day. Lebron James had a television show devoted to his desired free-agency destination. Moneyball the movie generated over $100 million in box office. It’s no accident that one of the jobs George Costanza thinks he’d be good at is the general manager of a baseball team – anyone who’s gone beyond the casual fan (and even those who haven’t) have put themselves in the GM’s chair.

I realize part of my love of professional sports comes from the player transaction. The idea that anyone in the league could theoretically be on your favorite team tomorrow, and someone on your team can go elsewhere. The moment when you hear about a trade or free agency signing – ‘Huh, I’d never considered him before.’  What will things be like when that guy is here? What will it be like when so-and-so leaves in free agency?  The glee when your club lands the guy everyone wanted, the gnashing of teeth when they overpaid him. College sports don’t really have this angle, and I feel like that’s part of why I was never interested in them – who wants to follow a sport where you lose your best players every year and you can’t trade for better ones?  Where’s the angle?

Part of what brought me back after the 2005 lockout was the flurry of player movements. Marian Hossa and Dany Heatley were traded for one another. Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger changed teams. Paul Kariya went to Nashville. A lot of prominent NHLers were bought out via the NHL’s amnesty program and ended up in strange uniforms. 

And that’s just interesting. I recognize that NHL players cannot be thrilled with constant changes of location, but that’s part of their paycheck, and certainly part of future paychecks – a player for player trade, by definition, signals that a player’s new team values him more highly than his previous one*.  These All-Stars in new locations coupled with the new rules and the shootout was must-see TV.  

* Except in the case of salary cap clearing deals

Of Course There’s Cold Water Being Thrown On This, It’s Hockey

Still, while it appears an agreement may be reached soon, we lovers of the waiver wire have to be wary of the impending CBA – word is that contract limits are coming. According to the latest offer, players can receive up to 7 year deals from teams they play for and 5 year deals from teams they do not. This, along with the limits in contract variation that owners have proposed (a contract cannot vary year to year by more than 5% of the value of the first year) would afford the creative GM less space to operate, and GM creativity is part of what keeps us going to the arena or tuning in on television.

We think about that one player, that one trade, that one change that brings our team from mediocrity into a contender, or from a contender into a Stanley Cup Champion. Consider whether the Blackhawks win without being able to add Marian Hossa on the free agent market. How about Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, each on very long term deals, being added by the Kings via trade?  How different would their trade values be if their contracts were shorter, and cap hits larger?  

I suppose we’ll find that out, and potentially soon.  Even with these contract limits, player movement isn’t going away – a transaction-heavy league is a happy league, for owners, GMs, even (eventually) for players, but especially for us fans. Here’s hoping we’re seeing amnesty buyouts within a week.