The NHL lockout continues as negotiations have broken off this week. We’re hearing Bill Daly and Steve Fehr are talking over the phone about the next step in the negotiation process, but we’ve been told that before. In the end, both sides have failed to learn from the CBA negotiations of other sports. The NHLPA and NHL don’t seem to understand their obligations to the fans.
When the NFL lockout threatened the most profitable sport in America, a resolution was found before the season was lost. The revenues that would have been lost from a shortened season certainly drove the expedient resolution, but the NFL felt an obligation to deliver their product to the fans that make it profitable. Commissioner Roger Goodell, a man whose rule changes have ruined kickoffs, removed big hits, and changed the game forever (for better or worse), refused to draw a salary until a new CBA could be agreed upon. No games were lost and the NFL delivered its product, protecting both the full revenues of the season and the loyalty of their fans.
Even if the NFL suffered a lost or shortened season, the most popular sport in America was never in danger of losing their fans for good. Still, they got a deal done with relative efficiency compared to the NHL. The NBA lost games in their most recent lockout, but a season was still completed. The NHL, for the second time in as many expired CBAs, is in danger of losing the entire hockey season.
Not only does this negotiation tactic make no sense from a perspective of lost revenues, the NHL is the least stable of the four major sports in America. While Canadians will likely never walk away from hockey (though they’re also the most likely candidate to start a rival league that doesn’t skip seasons every few years), Americans are far more distant and far less interested in our beloved sport of hockey.
Another lost season will alienate an already gun-shy fan base. The uniqueness of the product is what the NHL relied on to bring their fans back after the first lost season, but people can only be pushed so far. Rule changes made hockey more exciting to the casual eye, and the NHL enjoyed their most prosperous season ever in 2011-12. What will bring casual fans back when the NHL loses another season to greed?
Not only is the NHL losing revenues this season that far outweigh the gains possible for either side at this point in the negotiation process, the NHL is losing revenues for future seasons as well. Once the casual fan is gone for a second time in a single decade, they likely won’t come back. Hell, I find myself watching basketball games lately and actually enjoying it to a small degree.
Hockey already isn’t for everyone. The cost of ice time and equipment is prohibitively expensive for some, especially when compared to the minimal costs associated with more popular sports like baseball and basketball. Ice skating is unappealing to most of the country, and weather conditions for most of America prevent inexpensive options for learning the game and playing outdoors. There’s only so much abuse that fans that never played the game are willing to take. As players and owners argue over millions of dollars of consumer money with no sense of obligation to the fans, support for our niche sport dwindles.
It’s only a matter of time before the sport least connected to its fan base loses them forever – again.