Analysis: MLB strike, NHL lockout offer lessons that linger years later
March 6, 2011 10:00 AM
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
The NFL is facing a potential lockout.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Anyone looking for historical precedent for a possible National Football League lockout might learn more from baseball and hockey than from the NFL's most recent work stoppage.
That occurred in 1987, when the players' 24-day strike canceled the third week of games, then prompted the owners' use of replacement players for weeks four through six. The Steelers were throwing touchdown passes to someone named Lyneal Alston, and the rest of the league -- some teams derisively nicknamed, such as the San Francisco "Phony Niners" and Oakland "Masque-Raiders" -- looked no less illegitimate.
The NFL has since grown financially nearly tenfold, free agency has been instituted, players now draw seven-figure salaries, and the league now generates a mountain of television money. Comparing these eras is akin to comparing Ben Roethlisberger to Bobby Layne.
What might be more relevant is how -- or if -- the current situation compares to the two longest work stoppages in professional sports history: Major League Baseball's strike in 1994 and the National Hockey League's lockout 10 years later. Both had dramatic impacts on their sports, and both were felt deeply in Pittsburgh.
Will that history repeat?
Baseball strike, 1994
Baseball players walked off the job Aug. 11, 1994, beginning a seven-month strike that cost the sport the World Series for the first time as well as millions in players' salaries, about $1 billion for the teams and countless fans. By the next official pitch, April 25, 1995, it was the longest stoppage in any sport.
Tony Gwynn was batting .394 at the time of the strike. Matt Williams' 43 home runs had him on pace to break Roger Maris' hallowed mark of 61. And the Montreal Expos, never having won a division title, were headed for 105 wins and what many felt would be a world championship.
All were lost, and the Expos eventually were lost altogether. The team's average attendance in that great year was 24,543, but it shrank to 18,189 the following year, then hovered just above 10,000 for five years leading to a move to Washington in 2005.
Overall attendance plummeted from a record average of 31,612 in 1994 to 25,260 the following year. It took a full decade for attendance to return in 2004 to the pre-strike level.
The Pirates' average attendance plummeted, too, from 21,448 before the strike to 12,577 the following year, though it quickly climbed back to 20,457 in 1997, thanks to the beloved "Freak Show" team that contended for a division title despite a paltry $9 million payroll. But it was not until 2000, the final year of Three Rivers Stadium, that attendance returned to the pre-strike level.
People everywhere fumed.
"Fans were angry, and understandably so," said Frank Coonelly, the Pirates' president who worked a decade in MLB commissioner Bud Selig's office before taking his current post in 2007. "The economic damage was felt everywhere, but some markets felt it more acutely. Perhaps the most profound and lasting lesson from 1994 was that our fans will be particularly angered if we ask them to invest in a season that we cannot guarantee we will complete."
Pittsburgh had the most memorable display of anger, with many of the 34,841 fans at the 1995 home opener throwing giveaway flags onto the field late in an ugly 6-2 loss to the Expos. Shortstop Jay Bell, the Pirates' union representative, was booed with each trip to the plate.
The sport's bottom line took a hit, too: MLB's revenues were at $1.87 billion in 1993, the last full season before the strike, and did not return to that level until 1997. And, when those revenues topped that figure beginning in 1998 -- the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing Maris' home run record -- that rebound, in hindsight, would be tainted by baseball's steroids scandal.
All that probably explains why MLB never had another stoppage. The 1997 labor pact brought revenue sharing and a luxury tax, the 2002 pact was signed with barely a whisper, and even the expiration of the current pact Dec. 11 is expected to affect little more than how drafted amateurs are paid. It has been 17 years of peace after three decades marred by eight work stoppages.
Some credit the longtime presence of the lead negotiators -- Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president, and Mike Weiner, who took over as union chief last year -- as being instrumental. Others point to revenues hitting a record $6.6 billion in 2009. But the foundation of this peace is the memory of 1994.
"Owners and players both had to appreciate the lasting damage from the strike," Coonelly said.
One more result of the fear of another stoppage: MLB remains the only league without a salary cap, which brings dramatic extremes in how much teams can pay their players. The New York Yankees' payroll has been in the $200 million range the past three seasons, while the Pirates' has been in the $40 million range. There never has been a significant appetite to address that disparity.
Hockey lockout, 2004-05
In stark contrast, there was little that the NHL's lockout did not address.
Hockey's stoppage lasted 310 days, from Sept. 16, 2004, to July 13, 2005, and a full season was lost, another first in professional sports. No Stanley Cup was awarded for the first time since 1919.
That might sound as though it should have had a far worse impact than baseball's, especially given hockey's stature as North America's No. 4 sport. But it turned out quite the opposite: Twenty-five of the league's 30 teams increased attendance right after the lockout, none greater than the Penguins' increase of 33 percent. Arenas were filled to 91.7 percent and a total attendance record of 20,854,169 was set.
The game became fairer and faster, and the fans -- among the most loyal in sports -- immediately fell in love.
"What the lockout did for the NHL and for the Penguins ... it allowed us to survive," said David Morehouse, the Penguins' president who joined the team shortly after the lockout. "It accomplished cost certainty with the salary cap, bringing parity to the game. Pittsburgh can compete with the larger markets because they can't pay any more than we can."
NHL team owners claimed to have lost a collective $273 million in the 2002-03 season, and that, they said, occurred because they were spending 76 percent of revenues on players' salaries. That is well above the usual 50 percent-to-60 percent for most leagues. The NHL tried to sustain its finances by charging $50 million expansion fees for nine new franchises in as many years, but that bubble contributed greatly to that 76 percent of revenues going to the players because so many new ones were needed.
"It was a flawed model," Morehouse said.
Because teams in lucrative markets had raised the bar for player salaries -- a few payrolls began approaching $100 million -- they were able to buy up elite players. In Pittsburgh, money forced the trade of scoring champion Jaromir Jagr for three middling prospects. In Canada, the sport's birthplace, beloved franchises left Quebec and Winnipeg for the United States, and others were threatened in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa.
The league's commissioner, Gary Bettman, diligently held owners together, even though a couple resisted the lockout strongly, and even threatened them with fines up to $1 million for speaking out against it. His job was made easier because two-thirds of the owners were losing money.
When an agreement finally was reached, the NHL had its first salary cap, limiting each team to $39 million in the first season and limiting players to 54 percent of all revenues for the life of the pact. Because revenues increased after the lockout, the cap rose to $44 million the next season and is at $59.4 million now.
Revenues were at $1.8 billion before the lockout and now are close to $3 billion.
The new rules and enforcement standards, plus a shootout after tied overtime periods, added excitement, too. The Penguins' Sidney Crosby was part of an exceptional group of rookies and immediately achieved 100 points.
Rough ice might be ahead, though: The NHL's current labor pact expires in September 2012, and the union has hired Donald Fehr, the longtime chief of the baseball union who engineered the 1994 strike. The NHL players caved in 2005, but pushback is expected this time.
What can be culled from those stoppages to illuminate what might happen now?
Maybe the main thing is that the NFL's situation does not look all that serious, by comparison.
"I think the NHL was in a much different place than where the NFL is today," Morehouse said. "The NFL is the greatest league in the world, and they don't need to reinvent what they do."
Maury Brown, author and founder of the Business of Sports Network, sees at least one similarity.
"I would say that the relationship between the leagues and unions are very similar," Brown said. "There's distrust. Acrimony. There's just a sense of no partnership between the NFL and its players, which was certainly the case with MLB and the NHL leading up to their work stoppages."
But what separates the NFL, Brown added, is its popularity and profitability.
"In MLB, there had been labor strife at each deadline, and fans finally had enough when the '94 season was lost. For the NHL, it was a matter of a less popular sport losing a season, which impacted some gains that had been made. For the NFL, I think any losses will be very short-lived. Fans have an incredible appetite for the NFL. I would expect them back in a short period of time."
Most factors point to the NFL settling without much damage or time lost:
• Foremost is that the NFL and its union do not have differences close to those of the baseball and hockey examples. Football's biggest is how to divide the pool of $9.1 billion that dwarfs those of other leagues. There is no individual owner confirmed to be losing money, either.
• The NFL's revenues are 30 percent higher than those of baseball, more than triple those of hockey. Consider that each NFL team gets $100 million in national revenue-sharing monies -- including TV rights and merchandising -- compared with the $90 million that the entire 30-team NHL divides today.
• Football players figure to be far more interested in settling. The average NFL career lasts only 3.5 seasons, compared to 5.6 in baseball, 5.5 in the NHL. A lost season in football costs veterans the chance at championships and milestones, and it will wipe out some careers in some cases. The Steelers' Hines Ward, 35, and James Farrior, 36, have raised the latter possibility in their cases.
• If the NFL shuts down for an entire season, it would have two full draft classes upon restarting in 2012. Football draft picks -- unlike those in baseball and hockey, sports that have minor league systems for player development -- commonly contribute right away. Thus, training camp in 2012 could involve double the number of new candidates, as many as 20, for jobs on a 53-man roster. Players on the fringe would have cause for concern.
NFL owners and players agreed Friday to extend the current collective bargaining agreement and continue talking for another seven days, delaying the deadline for a lockout.
Still, negotiations can turn ugly, and sides can become bitter on a personal level, outweighing any history or other factors that point to a settlement. That happened in baseball and hockey, and there is no assurance it will not happen between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and union chief DeMaurice Smith.
For now, NFL training camps are set to open the third week of July.