The 10 Most Significant Pro Sports Strikes and Lockouts

Almost no one who follows the NBA closely expected the association to play a full season this year. But many of us hoped (however irrationally) that players and owners would emerge from last weekend’s meetings ready to end the lockout and begin the 2011–12 season on time. They didn’t. Instead, commissioner David Stern canceled the first two weeks of the season, saying that the two sides remained far apart on “virtually all issues.” Next week, players and owners will meet with a federal mediator in hopes of making some progress.

We don’t know how long this lockout will last. It could end next week (probably not) or in 2014. While we wait, we can look back on other labor disputes that have disrupted and/or had a major impact on professional sports. Here are the 10 most significant, counting down from 10 to 1.

10. 1992 NHL players strike

If you're going to put Jaromir Jagr's bushy mullet on a trading card, you're going to have to pay for it.

The National Hockey League Players’ Association was founded in 1967 but didn’t strike against the NHL until 1992. (Late bloomer?) The players wisely decided to strike on April 1, threatening the cancellation of the Playoffs (the part of the NHL season that people who live south of Kalamazoo pay attention to). Owners and players disagreed about free agency, bonuses from Playoff games, and trading card revenue, among other things.

The 1992 strike only lasted 10 days before the two sides reached a 2-year agreement. Owners increased players’ Playoff bonuses, and both sides agreed to increase the length of the season to 84 games, with each team playing two games at neutral sites (in hopes of attracting new fans and expanding the game). The NHL played exactly 2 84-game seasons before—following the expiration of the 2-year agreement and one season played without a collective bargaining agreement (CBA)—owners locked out the players in 1994. (See below.)

9. 1984 Association of Volleyball Professionals strike

Pro beach volleyball players formed the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) in 1983 to protect their interests in negotiations with tournament promoters. One year later an AVP players strike interrupted the beach volleyball world championships in Redondo Beach, California.

With NBA players and owners apparently nowhere near reaching an agreement some observers have suggested that players form their own league. In 1984 beach volleyball players did exactly that. The AVP Tour grew during the 1980s and early 1990s, introducing the world to stars such as Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos and capitalizing on the fame of Olympic hero Karch Kiraly. After some financial hardships in the late 1990s, the AVP Tour continued into the new millennium, with marketable stars such as Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.

Alas, financial troubles returned and the AVP Tour suspended operations last August. The Tour will resume play next week in Huntington Beach.

Sinjin Smith: "Me and my buddies are going to take our ball and our funny visors and start our own tour." (Not an exact quote.) Photo from

8. 1981 Major League Baseball players strike

In 1981 a players strike resulted in the cancellation of more than 700 Major League Baseball games during June and July. (“No baseball in June and July? Well, there’s always Wimbledon, and the Tour de France.”) While the strike denied fans many summer afternoons at the ballpark, baseball lovers didn’t lose Opening Day or the post season.

Owners wanted compensation for free agent players lost to other teams. Players felt that such compensation would mean that their agency wasn’t truly free. Players ultimately agreed to allow indirect compensation (access to players in a pool of players unclaimed by other teams and picks in the amateur draft) for the loss of certain free agents and to restrict free agency to players who had been in the Majors for six years or more.

The 1981 strike was responsible for the first ever American and National League Division Series (which otherwise began in 1995 with the introduction of the Wild Card). Since the strike had divided the season (roughly) into two halves, Major League Baseball decided that the first-half champion and the second-half champion of each of the four divisions would meet in a divisional playoff round. It was a neat idea, but both the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals were left out of the playoffs despite having the best overall records in their respective divisions.

Sports Illustrated cover from the 1981 players strike

7. 1979 Major League Baseball umpires strike

Not all labor disputes involve players. The Major League Umpires Association (MLUA) was born in 1970 after a one-day umpires strike on the first day of the American and National League Championship Series. Umpires struck again in 1979, this time with the backing of a union.

The MLUA asked for an average pay increase of $10,000 for each of the 52 Major League umpires. The strike lasted from Opening Day until May 18, by which time Major League Baseball had had enough of replacement umps and agreed to increased pay, travel per diem, and vacation time.

American League umpire Don Denkinger in 1979. (Denkinger is best known for a call he made in the 1985 World Series. But, for the benefit of Cardinals fans, I won't bring it up.)

6. 1998–99 NBA Lockout

When the NHL players went on strike in 1992, the NBA had the distinction of being the only of the then four major American pro sports leagues never to have lost games to a labor dispute. That distinction lasted just over 6 years. In 1998 NBA owners opened up the current CBA with an eye on limiting maximum player salaries. (Back then teams were allowed to use the Larry Bird exception to re-sign their free agents for unlimited sums of money.) Also, 57 percent of basketball-related money was going to players, and many teams claimed to have been losing money. (Sound familiar?)

The lockout began on July 1, 1998 and wasn’t resolved until January 20, 1999 (despite David Stern’s threat to cancel the entire season if sides didn’t reach an agreement by January 7). Players agreed to a maximum salary and a rookie wage scale. In exchange for their concessions, players got a couple new salary cap exemptions and a slight bump in the league’s minimum salary.

The NBA played 50-game schedule starting in February. Even though teams had fewer days between games, the Spurs didn’t finish off the Knicks in the NBA Finals until June 25, which is still the latest date on which the NBA has crowned its champion.

The 1998-99 lockout prevented NBA players from playing in the 1998 FIBA World Championships in Athens. USA Basketball hastily assembled a team of college players, semi-pros, and Americans playing professionally in Europe and sent them to Greece. The 1998 USA team won a bronze (a much better result than the 2002 team of NBA players managed).

Ticket sales and television ratings dropped in the years immediately following the lockout. (Michael Jordan’s retirement certainly didn’t help things.) But one Lakers three-peat later, things were back to normal.

During the 1998-99 NBA Lockout, Nike ran a series of ads urging players and owners to work things out and resume play, including this one starring Samuel L. Jackson:

5. 1994–95 NHL Lockout

Little more than 3 years after the 1992 strike, labor relations again got messy in the NHL. This time the players didn’t strike; the owners locked them out.

The NHL had played the 1993–94 season without a CBA. During negotiations for a new agreement, players and owners agreed that something needed to be done to help small-market teams. Owners wanted a salary cap; players wanted revenue sharing. There were other issues of contention, including salary arbitration and whether to limit free agency.

Owners locked out players on October 1, 1994, and the lockout continued until January 11, 1995, shortening the season from 84 games to 48 and eliminating the 1995 All-Star Game. Players eventually agreed to a rookie salary cap and some restrictions on free agency.

The new CBA did very little to help small-market teams (the supposed goal of the negotiations). By 1997, 3 small-market teams had moved to bigger markets, 2 leaving traditional hockey cities for non-traditional locales: The Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995; the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996; and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.

4. 1982 NFL players strike

A players strike caused the NFL to cancel play for 2 months during the fall of 1982. Players wanted 55 percent of revenue, better medical and retirement benefits, and a minimum salary scale, among other things. The players didn’t get all that they asked for, and many were upset with NFL Players Association director Ed Garvey’s handling of the negotiations. (Early the next year the players forced Garvey to resign.) But the players came out of the strike with increased pay, severance packages upon retirement, and increased Playoff pay.

The result of the strike was a 9-game season. Back then 10 teams, 5 from each conference, qualified for the NFL Playoffs. But 1982 was different. Whether to compensate for a 9-game schedule or because 9 games wasn’t a large enough sample size to determine the league’s best teams, the NFL followed the 1982 season with a 16-team tournament (no byes) culminating in Super Bowl XVII.

3. 1987 NFL players strike

During almost any pro sports labor dispute, some analyst will say the two words that no one wants to hear: “replacement players.” During the 1987 NFL players strike, owners hired replacements (and not the good kind).

Owners signed hundreds of free agents who otherwise would have been out of work. The result was a league full of teams that looked nothing like the squads that fans had paid to watch.

The players struck to protest the NFL’s free agency rules. But the players didn’t have a strong union; and they didn’t have the backing of fans, who had no interest in watching replacement players. Some high-profile players, including future hall-of-famers Joe Montana and Steve Largent, even crossed the picket line.

NFL players returned to work in October, after 3 weeks of replacement football, without a CBA. Only one week of the season was lost. During the next couple years the NFL Players Association would reorganize and bring an anti-trust suit against the league, challenging the NFL’s restrictions on free agency. Many of the demands that players had made in 1987 were realized in the 1993 CBA.

Fans have no love for replacement players, otherwise known as scabs.

2. 1994–95 Major League Baseball players strike

By percentage of games lost the 1994–95 baseball strike was similar to the 1994–95 NHL lockout or the 1998–99 NBA lockout. But unlike the NHL or NBA, baseball lost a championship.

In 1994 owners presented a plan that would raise player salaries but institute a salary cap and put restrictions on free agency. They needed player approval for the plan to go into effect. The players rejected the proposal, went on strike, and filed suit against the owners, who had suspended free agency and salary arbitration while negotiations were going on. On March 30, 1995 future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ruled in favor of the players, ordering the owners to reinstate free agency and arbitration. The players immediately went back to work.

The strike lasted from August 12, 1994 until April 2, 1995, shortening two seasons and eliminating the 1994 World Series. (They still gave out post season awards in 1994. Frank Thomas was the AL MVP.)

Perhaps the most notable victim of the 1994–95 strike was the Montreal Expos franchise. At the time of the strike, the Expos had the best record in baseball and a 6-game lead in their division. Financial losses and dwindling fan support related to the strike hurt all 28 teams. But the consequences were especially severe for the Expos, a team in a non-traditional market that was forced to part ways with its core of talented young stars, including Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, and Moises Alou.

"I have a party to get to. Let's just go with the obvious pun and put this issue to bed."

1. 2004–05 NHL lockout

NBA owners are upset about 57 percent of basketball-related revenue going to players, but going into the 2004-05 season NHL owners were spending 76 percent of revenue on player salaries. Teams were losing millions of dollars and pushed for a hard salary cap. The players pushed back, proposing a luxury tax, revenue sharing, and a 5-percent cut in player salaries. Owners locked out players in September 2004. When the two parties still hadn’t come to an agreement by February 2005, commissioner Gary Bettman canceled the remainder of the season. It was the only time a major North American pro sports league lost an entire season because of a labor dispute.

The two sides reached an agreement in the summer of 2005. The owners got their salary cap, and the players—who couldn’t afford to miss any more paychecks—didn’t get much of anything. NHL Players Association director Bob Goodenow resigned less than a week after the lockout ended.

Because there was no season, there were no standings and no draft order. The league held a draft lottery to see who would win the right to draft consensus #1 pick Sidney Crosby. (The NHL weighted the lottery in favor of teams that had missed the Playoffs in recent years.)

2005 was the only year since 1919 that the Stanley Cup was not awarded. Since Lord Stanley’s original intent was for the trophy to go to the best amateur hockey team in Canada, there was a movement to take the Cup away from the NHL. That movement was not successful.


Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at or send him an e-mail.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


  1. 1984 The first AVP players strike takes place during the World Championships at Redondo Beach. This results in the AVP playing host to its own tour

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  1. […] Midwest Sports Fan looks at the 10 Most Significant Pro Sports Strikes and Lockouts. […]

  2. […] The NBA could cancel the whole season if David Stern thinks progress hasn’t been made in negotiations this weekend. That would a lot fast a cancellation than the NHL’s cancellation which is on this list of the 10 most significant sports strikes/lockouts. (Midwest Sports Fans) […]

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