SBJ/August 27-September 2, 2012/Opinion

How media coverage, public opinion are shaping NHL talks

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Some believe that winning the PR battle is essential in collective bargaining and can be accomplished by communicating an effective, simple message and having that reflected in the media’s coverage of your position. Whichever side is successful in delivering its message gains public support, and that support, in turn, results in pressure to reach a deal. The media’s coverage of the issues and personalities in the negotiations plays a large part in shaping that message.

In the current NHL talks, public opinion and media coverage are clearly on the side of the players. Some would say that’s not a surprise, especially when it comes to the media, but the media is not always player-friendly. In the NFL talks last year, there was a sense by many on the players’ side that pro-management media fueled anti-player sentiment. During the NBA talks, there was less advocacy of ownership and its position, but also a clear recognition that the NBA’s system was flawed and needed to be changed to assist ownership in operating more efficiently in smaller markets.

I’m not seeing any of that in the NHL’s talks. Let’s take a look:

THE OFFERS: When NHL owners offered their initial proposal to the union, the reaction across the hockey media focused on how aggressive it was. Look at the July 16 issue of SportsBusiness Daily. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks had the most details and stated it was “not a good-faith proposal.” The Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline wrote that the league’s requests were “extreme.” ESPN’s Scott Burnside wrote the league “might as well have slid this proposal into Santa’s sack as it represents an owners’ wish list of ways the players can help save the league’s teams from spending themselves into financial crises.” The headline of Jack Todd’s story on the talks in The (Montreal) Gazette was, “NHL’s Gary Bettman’s Proposal To Donald Fehr Amounts To War Against NHLPA.” The hockey media clearly saw this initial offer as hostile.

When the union offered a proposal a month later, it was reported quite differently. Look at the Aug. 15 issue of SportsBusiness Daily. The Toronto Star’s Mark Zwolinski called the union’s proposal “imaginative.” The Canadian Press’ Chris Johnston wrote that the NHLPA “presented itself as a partner looking to help fix the league’s problems.” The Sporting News’ Jesse Spector wrote under the header, “Donald Fehr’s Union Counterproposal A Forward-Thinking Stroke Of Genius.”

Days later, the league stated its objection to the union’s offer, and the New York Daily News’ Pat Leonard wrote that Commissioner Bettman “threw cold water on any optimism generated by the players’ alternative.” The Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan wrote, while it “seemed like a decent plan,” Bettman “crumpled it up and threw it in the trash can.” The New York Post’s Mark Everson called the NHLPA’s proposal “progressive, inventive, far-reaching, owner-friendly, sport-growing.” And in Buffalo, Mike Harrington wrote Bettman “better realize the bully tactics won’t work.”

Not hard to see the NHLPA’s efforts winning over the media and that was the message reaching the public. Ownership may have been working its media allies to assist on messaging, but it wasn’t pushing out its position, and it didn’t seem to be a point of emphasis for them.

THE BETTMAN/FEHR FACTOR: The personalities of the leaders are a major factor in the media’s coverage. Bettman’s relationship with the hockey media has always been strained. The Canadian media is especially critical of him, and I’ve had plenty of conversations with league insiders over the years who believe the Canadian hockey media is over-emphasized and unfairly shape the coverage in the U.S. One only has to look at the photos of Bettman recently in the Canadian press’ stories on the CBA talks to get a sense of the relationship: He’s either smirking, scowling or shown in some other non-flattering look. On the flip side, there is a noticeable change in attitude toward NHLPA boss Fehr. Long vilified for his role in baseball losing a World Series and for seemingly fighting drug testing, he has — so far — found a more friendly media. He’s been accessible and casual with writers. It will be interesting to watch how long the positive feelings remain or if perceptions change once the talks get more serious and the union’s position becomes more risky.

THE STRATEGIES: The union’s PR plan is to show that players want to play and are willing to play while negotiations take place. They haven’t fought the salary cap and have proposed forgoing revenue if the league addresses internal revenue sharing, which they deem to be the real issue. The hockey media seems to agree and believe that the owners won so handily in 2004-05 that for them to seek more relief now eschews any intent of partnership — or even good faith. In addition, the image of today’s players helps the union: They are portrayed as down-to-earth, not money-hungry. They were beaten up last time, and everyone knows it.

Some have publicly questioned if Fehr is boxing in Bettman with such a PR strategy, but Bettman won’t be fazed by this approach. The players are set up to win the PR battle — the only way they lose it is if they splinter and veer off message. Public opinion and media columnists criticizing Bettman won’t determine the outcome of these negotiations. NHL owners shut down their sport for a full year and heard cries of catastrophe only to see their league post record revenue seven years later.

Overall, coverage of the NHL labor issue has been relatively sparse among mainstream media, especially considering coverage of the NFL and NBA negotiations of last year. The battle for public opinion can hardly be described as that either — a battle, or noticed by the public. The league will try again to win big and not worry about press inches. Yes, they will begin feeding their media-friendly members with information, and at some point, the NHL will shift its focus to public opinion. The last lockout was effectively spun as necessary for the future and growth of the game. It worked, and Bettman acknowledged that fans were patient during the shutdown because they envisioned — and got — a stronger league at the end of the day. Many observers (including fans) are looking for the league’s rationale this time around. The question is: When will the league feel the need to publicly and aggressively promote its position? Because right now, league officials don’t appear concerned with winning over the public and explaining why they want what they say they need.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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