The Keyhole

Lockouts and strikes are different, but it’s easy to see why many fans lump them together. While philosophically contrasting, they each have in common the one thing that matters to sports fans: cancelled games and dark venues.

Beyond that, a more devoted fan can flesh out the story from there. The percentage points and collective bargaining tools used by owners and unions can be bandied about by journalists and fans for months. The endless string of one-sided press conferences or, worse yet, scheduled talks. Reporters waiting outside of board rooms and office buildings, tweeting.

This is not sports. This is not the pinnacle of athletic achievement, but the business model hiding behind team colors and highlight reels. This is the ugly reality of our rooting interests, highlighting the disconnect between the games we love and what makes the sport’s engine go.

In this talk of player insurance and contracts and business jargon the only sport to be found is deciding who is more wrong than the other, and which side to cheer for. In place of scores and highlights, we don invisible union or owner jerseys and cheer for escrow figures and economic terms like “profit certainty.” It is, decidedly, not a whole mess of fun.

There are two major labor conflicts happening simultaneously in professional sports. Both are lockouts. The National Hockey League and its players are currently locked out of training camp and seem mildly interested in coming to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The National Football League and its officials are also fighting over 1% of the league’s revenue. The NFL is simply pushing forward with games staffed by replacement officials.

The former league is likely to go without games next month, while the latter simply goes with under-prepared and barely qualified bodies in black and white policing its games. Neither situation is ideal.

Monday night’s Broncos/Falcons game was a disgraceful showing of the most popular—and lucrative—sport in America. It was a slow-moving, mistake-filled disaster of a football game that featured more huddles of striped men discussing rules than touchdowns. Its broadcast, on the ever-powerful ESPN, brought to a head a weekend full of sluggish football filled with near-disasters of officiating.

A game between the Giants and Buccaneers essentially spiraling out of control in the closing seconds. An absurdly obvious incompletion briefly ruled a fumble in Philadelphia, then overturned on replay. Balls spotted poorly and uneven interpretations of the most basic rules of the game. Frustration gave way to laughter, then resignation that nothing will come of all this talk.

Steve Young, of all people and in all places, said it best on SportsCenter after the game finally ended.

“Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There’s nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don’t care,” Young said. “There’s nothing that changes the demand for the NFL … It doesn’t affect the desire for the game. If it affected the desire for the game, they’d come up with a few million dollars.”

The NFL has power beyond the announcers of a football game, and it definitely has more power than the social media blip of a Twitter trending topic. The games are still being played, scab officials are still taking the field, and Mike Carey and Walt Coleman hang out around their homes on the weekend. Because the games are still happening and fans continue to watch, nothing has changed. And nothing will.

The NHL, it being in danger of not playing at all, has a slightly different situation to deal with. The logic, however, remains the same. When the chains finally come down, things outside the rink will go back to normal. Despite the hand-wringing from fans and frustration of everyone involved, nothing happening outside of those labor meetings will impact the signing of a new CBA.

The dangerous thing about locking out an entire season seven years ago is that hockey survived it. The league came back, tickets were sold and Stanley Cups were awarded. Now the league has a decent enough television deal with NBC and incentive to create “profit certainty” over the “cost certainty” owners were searching for in 2004.

In other words, if they survived a “season not played” getting engraved on the Stanley Cup, what’s a few months in the fall without hockey? The fans will be back once the puck finally drops; the league has few casual fans to lose with a work stoppage. Casual hockey fans are rare, and a good team has proven time and time again it’s possible to fill an arena as long as you can win.

ESPN essentially went a month without even mentioning the NHL over the summer. Saturday’s lockout formalities were a mere blip on the Bottomline amid a sea of college football. Hockey is far from a mainstream sport these days, and the fans’ heightened interest in lockout procedures only proves that people are invested in this for the long haul.

What we say or do during the lockout doesn’t matter, as long as we come back to the arena once it’s over. That’s all that matters, really. That devotion to the game is what makes this lockout a viable negotiation tactic. We are stuck in the waiting game, an awful catch-22 of trying in vain to force wealthy men to bring hockey back. That desire for hockey, though, is what makes the chains on arena doors actually work.

This is the new sporting landscape we live in. A world of patiently waiting for hockey—or competent officiating in football—to be handed to us. In the interim, we watch and wait.

It’s not sports, but it’s definitely part of the game.