The National Hockey League has this work stoppage thing down to a science…
That and being the butt of all non-New York Jets related sports jokes.
During the 113-day lockout, one head coach said that the NHL’s brand was in danger of becoming as irrelevant as bowling, to which reporters snickered back with “at least bowling is on ESPN.” There were major negotiations, in Midtown Manhattan, on New Year’s Eve, with Commissioner Bettman holding a press conference steps away from Times Square. And let’s not forget the famed podium that the Twitterverse anointed as the most famous inanimate object since the carbon rod that saved Homer Simpson’s life on the space shuttle.
Hockey hasn’t covered itself in glory over these last few months. That is unless you believe that the sport lacks drama and personality until the calendar hits April. In that case, Fehr vs. Bettman was the best rat-a-tat in the nearly nine-decade history of the league.
Even with a Stanley Cup victor in 2013, the season’s top highlight will probably be the Commissioner’s emotional breakdown during a press briefing on December 6th, with a man so accustomed to being booed at arenas across North America, visibly shaken as he tried to negotiate with someone who wasn’t going to bow to his every demand.
Now that the bickering is over, it is time to buy the NHL again. Mutually assured destruction eventually led to a long-term, decade-long Collective Bargaining Agreement, just as many predicted. This is justifiably followed by a period of hesitation (and rightfully so) from consumers (fans) who have been third-party pawns in an economic scuffle between billionaires and millionaires.
Fans welcomed back the National Basketball Association last winter after a lockout cancelled the first two months of the season. They came back to baseball following a 1994 MLB players’ strike that canceled the World Series. They returned to the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout that wiped out the entire season. They have warmed up to LeBron James, even after ‘The Decision,’ and many don’t vulcanize athletes and owners in the same manner as say, the CEO of Enron.
What else is working in the NHL’s favor?
The league’s old Collective Bargaining Agreement expired on September 15th, which meant that unless a deal was realistically in place by the end of September, games would fall by the wayside. This was a realistic summer discussion in every NHL office, with every HR manager and every potential sponsor. The latest edition of the league’s labor war was a touchy subject, but one that was addressed with all key stakeholders who knew about the potential consequences. Did they expect a lockout to run into January? Probably not, but many knew that cancelled games were a likely outcome.
The Comcast / NBC / Yahoo love-triangle
Sports television is nearing a crossroads in American society, with increasing subscriber fees and greater content options on more platforms than ever. The league’s relationship with Comcast ensures that hockey will be ahead of the trend regardless of developments in technology, platforms and consumer approaches to cable and Internet spending. Though we don’t know too much at this point, cross-platform opportunities between NBC Sports and Yahoo Sports offer synergies between the U.S. rights holder and a top destination for NHL content on the web. Could Puck Daddy TV be far behind?
The NHL made the best of a bad situation following the 2004-05 lockout, taking a very progressive approach with their media strategy. The league could no longer count on the cross-promotional benefits of being an ESPN partner, so it needed to embrace new ways to get the message out to fans. Many teams have poured considerable dollars into creating their own media assets, both with video and through web content. The league was the first to really embrace social media, especially on YouTube, as competitors like MLB and the NFL were quick to see that content was legally removed from the site. The league is also very generous in credentialing non-traditional media to jewel events like the Winter Classic, All-Star Game and the Stanley Cup Final, embracing bloggers and cultivating a generation of young journalists who will ambitiously spread the product through their own careers.
Lockout vs. Strike
The players are the public face of the league. The fact that they were ‘locked out’ as opposed to ‘on strike’ will help in the aftermath of an agreement. The majority of consumers will sympathize with their fight, including protecting previously guaranteed contracts, as opposed to pointing out the total dollar amount of those deals.
The Most Obsessive Fan Base
Why has TSN’s web traffic been up substantially over the last 100 days? When ESPN devotes 18 minutes of SportsCenter coverage over a six-month period to the sport and the league’s own network ignores CBA negotiations completely, Canada’s sports leader sees the perks. Having seen first-hand the passion and dedication of our fans in Hockeytown, few sports, if any, can rely on individuals who love the game at a level as obsessive as your average hockey fan. They know that hockey provides the best playoff format in professional sports. They know that revenue for most clubs is driven at the local level, with a significant portion coming through ticket sales. They know that other options exist, including at the AHL and NCAA level, but those are no substitutions for an elite product. At this point, until anger turns into complete apathy, there’s no reason to suggest that they won’t be back.
The Product Itself
The NHL can sleep easy knowing that the game itself is on solid footing. The masses aren’t worried about the sport’s pace, as they are with Major League Baseball. Few cite a fundaments drop-off, as some would argue with the NBA. And the in-person experience is still far superior to watching the game on TV, something that the National Football League is dealing with. The bottom line is that if the business end of the sport can stop shooting itself in the foot, who knows what might happen?
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