Hockey on the Brain: Why North American Leagues Lockout (because they can)

A slight departure this week.

Normally at this time of the year there would be a hum of sports stories flying in the media. At this point the sports sections of the major Toronto papers could effectively be renamed the Leafs section. Alas no. For the fourth time in 20 years the biggest game in town has been shut down by the owners. In that time, the NHL has lost more games to work stoppages than all the other major sports leagues combined, it is also the only league to completely wipe out a season.

Why is my soccer blog venturing outside the realm of footie? I think there is a connection between how the leagues structures of North American sport operate and the work stoppages. Going back to the beginning way back to about a century ago, two continents decided on very different structures of  league ownership. In England (and similarly in much of the rest of Europe), the power of the overarching league control was given to the national federation, the FA. Owners got a seat at the table, but if there was a better team around they could lose out on their spot. While the FA wasn’t exactly a part of the government, it wasn’t a part of the owner’s little racket either. Perhaps it was a cultural trust for authority derived from the state?

North America turned instead to the power of the corporation. In cash we trust. Owners also formed leagues, but to protect their interest, they each got a seat at the board with the governor and decided that it was to work as a secret club, you needed to pass the test of having enough money for a team and then you could receive your membership for life. North American leagues work effectively as cartels; Major League Baseball was actually exempted from US anti-trust legislation. It puts far more power in the hands of the owners than a similar European league.

Now I’m not blind to some of the obvious differences in the geography of the two places. North American cities were separated by vast distances that made the organization of leagues slightly more difficult than say England. Europe was divided politically so that each country insisted on its own league. But I think it was the power of business in the US during the end of the 19th century that settled things for how sport was to be organized here.

The effect has been that NA leagues have stressed inter-city rivalries (Boston vs NY, Toronto vs Montreal) while England makes almost a bigger deal with its intra-city derbies (Liverpool vs Everton, Sunderland vs. Newcastle). It has also calcified the NA leagues and given owners some rather unique powers: Drafts – being able to designate the team rights to certain players and removing the player’s freedom of labour; Territoriality – how is it that Phoenix can still have a team when its pretty clear from demand in Toronto that a new team here would sell out in a second?; no fear of relegation – as much as I like having TFC in MLS, if they played as bad as they do in Europe they’d be in the 6th tier of soccer already and deserve it; and most importantly, lockouts – can you imagine the owners of any soccer league trying to pull this on their own league, fans and players?

No. It wouldn’t happen, short player strikes have happened before; leagues have threatened to hold off without TV rights settled, but the moment the doors close the vultures of every other league in the world will swoop down and destroy the pool of talent those teams possess. For most NA leagues there are few other options. NFL Europe: not really, baseball in Japan: maybe, other basketball leagues: not much of a comparison (but getting better), KHL or Swedish Elite League: maybe to kill time. Given that sort of power and few options for players is it any wonder why there are so many lockouts in NA sport? Owners here have the players over a barrel.

Yes I feel sorry for the millionaires over the billionaires, not by much, but seriously, how have MLSE ever helped the sports fans of Toronto?