Dear Commissioner Bettman,
I am just a fan. I love the sport of hockey more than any other and I am writing this letter to provide you one fan’s perspective on the pending expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
I was born in 1981, into a family in which my father had just fulfilled his life-long dream of earning enough money to afford Rangers season tickets in the old green seats on the eighth floor of Madison Square Garden.
When I was three, we moved to Long Island, and I spent much of my childhood returning the good-natured schoolyard taunts of my friends, most of whom were Islanders fans. I was lucky enough to be sitting next to my father, my mother and my brother on June 14, 1994 when the Rangers won their one and only cup since 1940. Our tickets that night – seated 25 rows behind the 7th Avenue net – for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals were $60 per person (!).
In the late summer of 1996, I returned to the Garden to watch Team USA play Russia in a World Cup of Hockey preliminary round game during what is still to this day, the greatest hockey tournament I have seen in my lifetime.
In 2006, upon the death of my father, the season tickets he had held for 26 years were passed on to me and since then, my wife (of one year) and I have continued on the Rangers family tradition as a loyal season ticket subscriber. Further, in 2010, I attended three of the four Olympic quarterfinal games and one semifinal game in Vancouver, I attended the Winter Classic last year in Philadelphia and over the past five years, have averaged attending roughly 30 home games a year plus the playoffs.
The point of all of this background is to say, like so many others, I live hockey, I follow hockey and the beginning of the NHL season is the highlight of my year, each and every year.
I want to be clear and unequivocal about my thoughts on the current stalemate of negotiations. Prior to the 2004 lockout, I, and many of my fellow fans, agreed that something fundamentally needed to change to ensure the long-term financial health of the league and its franchises. Further, while the lockout, the ultimate capitulation of the NHLPA and the resultant loss of a full season infuriated many, lots of us, including myself also appreciated that perhaps the lost season was a necessary evil to get the league and its finances on a road to long-term success. In fact, I admit that I was a fan who was snookered into believing your and your clients’ suggestion that perhaps the “cost certainty” achieved in the new CBA would actually result in moderated ticket price increases or God forbid, perhaps seasons of no increase.
In 2004, we, the fans, trusted that you and the owners needed “cost certainty” to ensure the league’s long term success. But today, as a result of my own personal experience and listening to you and your team during this past summer, you have laid bare that “cost certainty” was nothing more than an attempt to create “expense certainty” and “profit certainty,” players be damned, fans be damned and prudent financial management be damned.
How have I arrived at this conclusion? After the lockout, the Rangers, who hadn’t made the playoffs since 1997, actually lowered my ticket prices from $78 to $65 a seat (in the same seat my which my father paid $60 in the 1994 Finals). After making the playoffs in 2005-2006, regular season ticket prices have gone from $65 to $78 to $89 to $95 for two seasons, then to $120 and now to $133 this coming season for basically the same seat (I am in new Section 114 in the partially transformed MSG). This means my ticket prices will have increased by 106 percent since 2006.
Contemporaneously, during this past CBA, league revenues have grown by more than 83 percent from about $1.8 billion in 2005-2006 to $3.3 billion in revenues during the 2011-2012 season while player salaries have naturally grown by the same percentage (the 2005-2006 salary cap was $39 million while this year’s Cap under the about-to-expire CBA would have been $71 million) due to the fixed 57 percent they receive each year.
Further, all of the non-ticket revenue generators have increased over the life of the CBA. National TV revenue from Comcast/NBC is three times per annum greater than what the league received from OLN/Versus at the beginning of the CBA. Further, TV ad revenue, Winter Classic related revenue, merchandise sales all have increased over the life the CBA; the NHL Network was born and is now growing, etc.
And yet, at the end of the day the league wants to lower salaries, states it’s losing money and is willing to cancel more games to extract another round of onerous and harsh concessions from the players who, lets all admit, took it on the chin during the last go-around? These are the same players who make the game everything that it is. They are the stars, the role players, fourth liners, maestros and grinders who make us appreciate a face-off win and penalty kill as much as a highlight-reel end-to-end rush. The players, not the owners, are the reason we love the sport as we do, the reason we love our teams as much as we do, and the reason we, the fans want to be ambassadors for teams, the players and the sport we love so much.
Therefore, this time around, I do not trust you, your deputies or the owners and any of your rhetoric. You have stated that the owners are paying the players too much. Will the owners commit to returning a portion of any “savings” or reduction in revenue earned by the players to the fans in the form of lower ticket prices or lower concession prices? Yeah, right…
This time, I am firmly with the players. If it costs a week, a month, or even a season for the players to preserve their right to earn their market value, to enter into guaranteed long-term contracts that protect them against the career-ending injury that is always one elbow or high stick away, to ensure that teams that need financial assistance get that help and that those that are able to thrive are able to thrive, then I, and my fellow fans support them.
As the Commissioner of the NHL, you wear many hats but one of them is head of our league, the fans’ league. Without us, the owners are left with nothing but empty arenas, empty bank accounts and mounting debt service. So as we approach Sept. 15, I implore you to do the right thing for the league, for the players and for the fans. Make the deal that is there to be made and let’s start the season on time.
Evan B. Levine (New York, NY)