Sep 272012

It looks like the NHL and the NHLPA are in a stale mate in terms of the CBA negotiations.  As of right now the NHL is holding firm on its stand of limiting players to 47% of revenue and the players are holding firm on its stand of not wanting to see any roll back of salaries either through a negotiated roll back or through escrow though the players are willing to scale back the growth of player salaries.

When the CBA negotiations started outside observers believed a final resolution to the CBA would see the owners and the players split revenues more or less along the 50% line, not unlike the NBA.  The question is when and how long it will take for both sides to capitulate to those numbers.  While driving around in my car yesterday I thought up a more innovative solution that might appease both the owners and the players and it has aspects within the system that both the owners and the players could view as a “win”.

Under the old CBA players got a fixed 57% of revenue.  It really didn’t matter what was written on their contracts because their salaries fluctuated depending on revenues.  A portion of the players salaries as written on their contracts were withheld every year (the dreaded “escrow”) by the NHL and once final revenue numbers were calculated the NHL would distribute from escrow whatever money the players still deserved to collect according to the 57% revenue rule.  Players hated this, even if there was potential to earn more than what was written on their contracts in the event of significant revenue growth.

Under the old CBA the salary cap and floor was calculated as being $8M above and $8M below the “midpoint” which was calculated as 57% of the average team revenues.  So, if the league had a projected revenue of $3B for 30 teams (I am using $3B to make calculations easy, actual projected revenue for next year was closer to $3.3B), it would be an average of $100M per team and the players share, or midpoint, would be 57% of that or $57M.  This would make the salary cap $65M and the salary floor $49M.

The system I am proposing is quite simple and revolves around adjusting how the salary cap and floor are calculated.  Instead of having the midpoint at 57% of average team revenue we set the salary cap at 57% and the salary floor at 43% (as an example I’ll use the owners initial offer).  This would make the salary cap $57M and the salary floor $43M.  Teams sign players according to those constraints and the numbers written on the players contracts are their actual cap hits.  If every team spends to the cap, which they won’t, the players could theoretically earn a 57% share of the revenue.  If teams individually choose to spend less, they can.  The more teams that choose to spend below the cap, or even right down to the floor, the players share of revenue will drop accordingly.  If every team chose to spend only to the floor, the players would earn just a 43% share of revenue.   In reality the players share will probably end up somewhere in the middle, in the 50% range, sometimes more, which the players might see as a “win” and sometimes less, which the owners might see as a “win”.

Under this system, escrow is not needed as players salaries aren’t explicitly tied to revenues, only the salary cap and floor are.  A player with a contract that will pay him $6M will have a salary cap hit of $6M and will get paid $6M, no more, no less.  Eliminating escrow is a win for the players.  Linking the players actual salary, and not their cap hit manipulated front loaded contracts, to their salary cap hit improves competitive balance which is a win for the owners, and the fans.

Under this system there will be no more long term front loaded contracts because the players actual salary in a given year is what is used as the cap hit, not the average salary over the term of the contract.  There would be no benefit to tacking on several years of $1M salaries as it won’t reduce the players cap hit in the early years.  This is a win for the owners, particularly the small market owners who couldn’t play that game.

I’ll also propose that every player earning an NHL salary (i.e. playing in the NHL or are on NHL one-way contracts) will count against the salary cap.  This includes players that have been demoted to the AHL like Wade Redden.  This also eliminates some of the big market advantage which improves competitive balance.

I’ll also propose significantly more revenue sharing, more along the lines of the players proposal.  If the owners are serious about competitive balance and 30 financially viable franchises significantly increased revenue sharing is the only solution to that.

There are a number of transition issues that will need to be resolved like how to transition from a $70.7M cap system to a 62.7M cap system and what to do with existing players on heavily front loaded contracts who will now see their salary cap hits rise dramatically as their front loaded salaries will now become their salary cap hits.  These can be negotiated and can probably be achieved through a 2-year transition period where escrow still exists but there is enhanced flexibility with regards to the salary cap.  Some of the teams that have significant numbers of front loaded contracts (i.e. the Flyers) may still have long term cap issues (that they will be forced to resolve) but too bad for them.  It’s their own fault for manipulating the system like they did.

When all is said and done, I think this system is a good one for both the players and the owners and the fans.  The players still definitely see a hit to their share of the revenues (they certainly won’t be earning 57% any more) but they get rid of escrow and there is still some upside potential to earn more than a 50% share if the league is able to develop 30 financially viable franchises.  The owners see the players share of revenue fall (if they so choose) possibly even down to the levels they have asked from the players.  With greater revenue sharing and eliminating the benefits front loaded long term contracts the small market owners will be the big winners which improves competitive balance which is something the league has identified as being good for the game.  The fans win because of the greater competitive balance, but also because I think the system is something that could work long term for the league and the players and hopefully eliminate the need for any future work stoppages.

It sounds like a win-win-win to me.  Now lets get it done and lets get back to hockey.


Sep 042012

Last week the NHL CBA negotations too a turn for the worse as both sides basically agreed to disagree and have temporarily walked away from negotiations.  Despite that I am still reasonable optimistic that there will not be a lock out or work stoppage anywhere close to as long as the 2004-05 lost season and I believe that any lockout will be measured in weeks and not months.  The reason is, the NHL is not losing money this time around as they were in 2004-05 and if there was a lost NHL season there would most certainly be significant lost profits at the hands of the owners.

If you recall back in 2004 the NHL hired Arthur Levitt to take an independent look at the financial state of the NHL.  You can read the report here but basically Levitt concluded that the NHL lost $273M on $1.996B in revenues during the 2002-03 season.  He also concluded that the players salaries worked out to 75% of total revenues during the 2002-03 season, or $1.494B.  With that knowledge, let’s crunch some numbers.

If total revenues were $1.996B and player salaries were $1.494B and total losses were $273M that would mean that non-player salary expenses totaled $775M.

The projection for the 2012-13 season was that revenue would be about $3.2B and under the old CBA agreement players were to be owed 57% of that, or about $1.824B.  The 43% that the owners get to keep would amount to $1.326B.

So, at this point we have the NHL owners share of league revenues totaling $1.326B and in 2002-03 non-player salary expenses totaled $775M.  Assuming no inflation in those non-player salary expenses and we have the NHL posting a league-wide profit of about $551M.  That is over a half a billion dollars in profit.  Of course, in the 10 years since 2002-03 non-player salary expenses have probably inflated as well.  I don’t know what the average inflation rate has been over the past 10 years but I suspect it is in the 2-2.5% per year range.  Now, for argument sake, lets assume non-player salary expenses inflated 1.035% per year.  This would equate to approximately a 41% increase in non-player salary expenses over the 10 year period which would estimate non-player salary expenses to be $1.093B for 2012-13.  Subtracting that from the $1.326B which is the owners share of the $3.2B in revenue and we could estimate owners profits next season to be a combined $283M, or close to $10M per team per year.  Now, not all owners will be posting a $10M profit next year, but as a whole the league will do quite well.  This is why I don’t believe the NHL owners will have the same resolve to sustain a lengthy lockout.

In the owners latest proposal they proposed the players get a 46% share of revenues while the owners themselves get to keep 54% of the revenue.  Plugging these numbers into the equations and we could forecast the NHL owners combined profit to be closer to $635M, or about $21M per team per year.  Think about that when the owners decide to lock out the players on September 15th.  They aren’t locking out the players to minimize league losses, they are locking out the players because they would rather pad their own pocket books to the tune of $20M/year instead of a mere $10M/yr.