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Principles of Microeconomics, v. 1.0

by Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen

Chapter 14 Imperfectly Competitive Markets for Factors of Production

Start Up: Hockey Players Frozen Out

On October 30, 2004, Columbus Blue Jackets’ center Todd Marchant would ordinarily have been getting ready to open the 2004–2005 National Hockey League (NHL) season before a packed house in a game against the Dallas Stars in Dallas. Instead, he was home and devoting his season to coaching his six-year-old daughter’s hockey team.

Mr. Marchant was home because the Commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman, had ordered players locked out on September 15, when training camp was scheduled to begin and when the contract between the NHL and the Players Association expired. Mr. Bettman had warned for five years that he would take the drastic action of shutting down the hockey season unless owners and players could agree on a system to limit player salaries. In the NHL, player salaries amounted to 75% of team revenues. By contrast, player salaries represented 64% of team revenues in the National Football League and 59% of revenues in the American Basketball Association. Mr. Bettman contended that the league’s 30 franchises had lost a combined $500 million in the previous two years.

Players and owners alike had a great deal of money at stake. The NHL was selling 90% of its seats available during the regular season and generating $2.1 billion per year in revenues. “No one likes losing money, but this year everyone involved in hockey may be losing something,” Mr. Marchant told Business Week. Mr. Marchant lost $2.9 million as a result of the lockout.

Mr. Bettman and the owners were holding out for a “salary cap” that would limit player salaries to 53% of team revenues. According to Mark Hyman of Business Week, that would reduce average salaries in hockey from $1.8 million to $1.3 million. “We’re not going to play under a salary cap; we’re dead set against it,” Brad Lucovich, defenseman for Dallas, told Business Week. But the owners were similarly adamant. They were perfectly willing to forego revenues from the season—and to avoid paying player salaries—to establish a salary cap.

Were the owners being greedy? Or were the players at fault? For economists, the notions of “greed” or “blame” were not the issue. Economists assume that all individuals act in their own self-interest. In the case of the hockey lockout, which eliminated the 2004–05 season, players and owners were in a face-off in which a great deal of money was at stake. Owners had tried to establish a cap in 1994; the resulting labor dispute shut down half the season. Ultimately, the players prevailed and no caps were imposed. The 2005 lockout ended in nearly the opposite way. In the new contract, player salaries are capped and may not exceed 54% of league revenues.Mark Hyman, “An Entire Season in the Penalty Box?” Business Week, 3906 (November 1, 2004): 94–95; David Fay, “Game On: NHL Lockout Finally Over,” The Washington Times, July 14, 2005, p. C1. To most observers, it seemed that the team owners had won this battle.

Revolutionary changes in the rules that govern relations between the owners of sports teams and the players they hire have produced textbook examples of the economic forces at work in the determination of wages in imperfectly competitive markets. Markets for labor and other factors of production can diverge from the conditions of perfect competition in several ways, all of which involve price-setting behavior. Firms that purchase inputs may be price setters. Suppliers of inputs may have market power as well: a firm may have monopoly control over some key input or input suppliers may band together to achieve market power. Workers may organize unions. Suppliers of services, such as physicians and hairdressers, have formed associations that exert power in the marketplace.

This chapter applies the marginal decision rule to the analysis of imperfectly competitive markets for labor and other factors of production. Imperfect competition in these markets generally results in a reduction in the quantity of an input used, relative to the competitive equilibrium. The price of the input, however, could be higher or lower than in perfect competition, depending on the nature of the market structure involved.