The NHL Lockout Is Doing Alarming Damage to the Brand - Not Surprisingly

By Emma Harger
Attracting and keeping NHL fans, like the ones seen here in June 2012 before a Stanley Cup Final game in Los Angeles, is going to get harder and harder. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL lockout is causing a major marketing challenge that will only get harder to solve the longer the lockout goes on, according to findings from the Level5 Strategy Group.

Level5 conducted their survey right before the early December breakdown of talks between the NHL and NHLPA, before the league decided to get litigious and file suit in New York to have their lockout declared legal as well as filing a complaint with the labor board accusing the NHLPA of not bargaining in good faith. (Hello, kettle? This is pot. I’m concerned about your coloration as of late.)

The Toronto-based Level5 has done brand analysis for groups like Canadian Tire, Rogers Communications, Petro-Canada, the NFL and NBA. They specialize in doing interviews to help determine people’s emotional attachments to various products and brands.

They found that, even in the holiday season, fans are not exactly feeling tidings of good cheer toward the league right now. The emotions range from betrayal to apathy and everything in between.

“We found damage at levels we have not seen…If anyone thinks that the lockout can end and everyone will come back to Happy Valley, it ain’t going to happen,” said David Kincaid, Level5’s CEO.

Well, I could have told you that just from taking the temperature of my group of hockey-loving friends!

Level5 did this survey for the benefit of corporate sponsors, though, so they can figure out what messages will hit fans most effectively in attempts to regain good standing. Again, Level5 did not do this for the benefit of the league, although I think it would behoove them to read about it and take some advice from it.

Especially when the findings–color-coded for emotions (red meaning fun, yellow meaning interest, grey meaning satisfaction and so on)–of this survey showed that the feelings surrounding the NHL right now are actually worse than Level5 surveys taken after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010.

Yes, you read that right. People are feeling worse right now about hockey than they felt about an environmental disaster.

Passionate fans surveyed by Level5 reported a slipping or total loss of interest, disappointment, unhappiness, confusion and frustration. Many feel cheated. Disgust was noticeable. Potential fans in the making aren’t exactly excited, either, which is not good at all.

Kincaid also had some advice for how to go from here. Pro tip: just painting the words ‘thank you fans’ on the ice isn’t going to cut it this time.

“It’s about damage control with these people, not about action on the ice,” he said. Again, I could have told you that.

Previously, I made suggestions for how the league can make some reasonable, meaningful changes to charm new fans and keep older ones once they figure out this lockout is a charade and end it. Yes, some of them may require an up-front financial investment and risk, but Jane and Joe Everyperson might just appreciate lower ticket prices, increased access to players, severely discounted or free NHL Center Ice and GameCenter access as well as other perks.

Things like that might be the first step to improving the coloration of the emotional graphs produced by fans of all care levels.

Who knows if the league will take those steps, though?

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