An Open Letter To The Hockey Fan Part Two

This is a series of letters from me to hockey fans that will take place throughout the duration of the lockout.

Part 1: An Open Letter To The Hockey Fan — KHL, AHL, ECHL

Part 2: The “Reality Bites” Edition……

Is there anybody out there? (Natalie Lutz/Flickr)

 

Dear Hockey Fan:

There have been a lot of half truths in these CBA negotiations. Times have been somewhat rough so far to be blunt. Games have been cancelled until at least October 24th and it is expected in the next week or so to see another round of postponements. Talks are ongoing but it seems that the core issues are not being addressed fans. The NHL and NHLPA have this contentment where they almost want to sandbag the season.

If the fans still think they can sway the owners and players in this mess, then they are truly the most mistaken people on the face of the Earth. This series is a wake up call and each part is a deep shot of adrenaline straight to the fans and their hearts, period! There is a cold reality that once the NHL comes back, fans will eventually gravitate back to the sport they loved first. This is very likely to happen among the most entrenched fans but what about our casual hockey friends? There were a lot of suggestions that this will significantly hurt the casual fanbase. However, do we really have a quantified way to measure that? The answer is yes and no. Let’s take a quick look.

Mario Lemieux Statue

Pens attendance before Mario was awful post lockout. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

We took a simple glance at the 2003-04 attendance figures and then crossed them with the 2005-06 attendance figures (thanks ESPN!) and honestly there were some interesting dips and spikes. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in the year before the lockout and saw its attendance still spike nearly by 2700 fans. That is a percentage rise of 15.1%. Hey it sounds like Gary Bettman was right that the hockey fan will come back in droves no matter what. However, there are mitigating circumstances because what if you then combine that with the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins absolutely bottomed out as their attendance dipped to 30th in the league after the lockout. Numbers can be spun anyway a person wants just to make a point. The Pittsburgh attendance dropped by nearly 4000 but again most of that was because how awful the product was, along with owner uncertainty. If we throw out the highs and lows. the overall attendance actually went up. It also went up by a noticeable percentage that probably gave the owners a complex that okay if we do this again, the same thing will happen. Those numbers lie and don’t lie. Ticket prices did not really go down like many fans thought and yet attendance went up. When 50% of your revenue is derived from gate sales, any rise in revenues has to be attributed to almost constant increases in ticket prices. The question is did profits really go up and that answer is for the bigger market teams, it did to a point. As for the rest, they are now feeling the pinch after those initial rises.

If people think we are kidding, here is the quote from Mike Ozanian of Forbes:

Among the four major team sports in North America, hockey is by far the most dependent on ticket revenue. During the 2010-11 season the typical NHL team relied on gate receipts for half of their revenue. Last year the average team in the NFL, which has the richest national television deals (divided equally among all teams), gets less than 25% of its revenue from ticket sales. The comparable figures in the NBA and MLB are 33% and 25%, respectively.

The owners and players have to share this blame game and some will say the fans do too and they are right to a degree. Forbes did a few articles going pro and con on blaming the very essence, the fans. Yes, here was the piece that did not blame them. The quickest way for the league to take notice is for fans to go away in droves and as the last lockout showed, that did not happen at all. As for scoring, the NHL only generates 18% of its revenue from television (lowest among the major sports). Ratings are also improved but considering how low they were, how much of an improvement was it really? When you rationalize it, the fans do deserve some of the blame for being suckered in by the new rules and increased scoring that has also dried up by the way. The fans have bought in like a date who goes all in only to find out they were lied to the whole time.

Gary Bettman and the owners had everyone fooled until this week and even then, the hardcore fan is going to come back even after this “focus group” fracas leaked out. It was somewhat known that these sort of groups existed after the season long lockout that sacked the 2004-05 season. More than likely both sides had their own form of spin control. What were they trying to gauge? You! Just think about how much these groups cost and the people who run them get paid and I mean paid.

Marketing and “other revenues” have never been a real strong suit for the NHL. The numbers do not lie. If you go outside of the same six or seven teams that are played relentlessly on national TV (NHL Network, NBCSN, NBC, etc.). that is just the start of the problem. The NHL is a niche sport that does not have a niche right now thanks to what this lockout has shown to fans, media, and people alike. There are definitely a segment of fans that have had enough because there are so many other options out there. The quality is not there and everyone knows it. However, at what point do you consider the lesser over the former?

Gary Bettman at World Hockey Summit

Does Bettman need to get out of the limelight on this one? (Steve Lansky/THW)

Gary Bettman is a lawyer. Lawyers talk out of both sides of their mouth. The fans should have known better and most did. There are very few that like the commissioner and it is a tough job but when your owner is ridiculed and lambasted the way he is (compared to others), there is a serious problem with your sport. Four work stoppages in two decades is just inexcusable, including three lockouts. The first lockout cost half a season, the second a whole season, and what does the third entail? The NHL keeps on missing this marketing and television gravy train again and again. Worse, the longer this lockout goes, the fans unwittingly are going to steer away completely from hockey come December if there is little or no hope. Why? It is because there are so many other alternatives. The social media age allows us even more in the way of choices. Together, it forms almost an excuse for the fan to escape completely. Actual drop dead dates do not matter as much because the casual fan is going to check out and it is going to be sooner than anyone can guess. A hockey fan has his or her own mental ticker as far as when they clock ultimately goes off or if it does at all.

Fans, now that we have laid out some of the parameters of what is currently going on, it is time to get a little tough here. The fan up in Canada is almost going to go to a game NO MATTER WHAT. They are so rabid for hockey that when they even take a pause, it is a sign. It is almost the same in the bigger NHL markets. Pittsburgh may be the worst of all because of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. There are fans that do not know the game. They happen in every single support but in hockey, everything seems off these days. The casual fans have drowned out the capitalistic, opportunistic people who want to organize this event and that event to protest the lockout.

How about all those things are not going to matter! What do these people say about that. All these fan chat pages and the fans have to realize one thing. If you worry about one thing right now, why not worry about the businesses around the arenas that are taking a killing. There are some fans who still care about what goes on around them besides their precious Geno and Sid. This is why an NHL Fans Night Out has been organized and every chance you can get, support those businesses. It is why a Hockey Fans Fight Cancer has been started. There are other things that can be done. Go watch the minors, the prospects, the kids for crying out loud.

The AHL has started already, the OHL is a few weeks in along with the rest of the CHL leagues. Yes, the prices are steep as far as streaming the games but one has to think the fan is relatively close to some level of hockey. Granted, it is not near the NHL level but the spectator has to realize this one thing. You can’t always get what you want. The Rolling Stones said it best, The fan is still moping all because the least profitable part of the season is vanishing more or less. If the whole season washes away, that is a different story. Life goes on. Please wake up fans before its too late.

The AHL got underway to a pretty decent rise in attendance. (File Photo/Flickr)

Here are the realities. A bigger chunk of the season will be lost sometime in the next week or so. The fans have to understand this is a business where the endgame has zero urgency right now. The NHL knows you are going to come back but in the meantime there was only a 10.6% bump in AHL attendance over the weekend. It was expected to be a little more. College attendance is only slightly up while so far the CHL teams have not seen too much of a change at all. It is early but it is something we will be keeping an eye on. Lastly, there is the increased arrogance of both sides. There just comes a time where the fan calls a spade a spade. All the half truths that we have seen in the beginning of this letter are coming or have come to a head. It is time to ask the following questions of the fans and we want honest answers no matter how it may be construed or potentially misconstrued. Again, please do not hold back by any means as this is very important. These are some tough questions mixed in with a few questions that are kind of a gauge as to the opinion of a hockey fan, whether it be passing, casual, or fiercely devoted.

Here are our seven deadly questions.

  • Will you come back when the NHL does with the same love as before?
  • What alternatives have you watched in place of the NHL?
  • Who do you blame in this round? Owners? Players? Or who cares?
  • If the KHL pops on in more outlets, will you actually watch?
  • What is your cutoff date as far as caring about the NHL season?
  • If Gary Bettman had been held out of the negotiations, would we see more progress right now?
  • Do you think the NHL really cares about the fan?

This is not the final installment and actually it is far from it. The goal has always been to open the fans and their minds to what is really going on while getting their opinion. Those insights are very important so I encourage you to leave many comments at the bottom of this article. Thanks again and remember what else is out there.

UPDATE (7pm ET):  The NHL has come up with an offer that calls for a 50-50 split in HHR (Hockey Related Revenue). Here is the latest on the CBA. It is important to note that there are a lot of details to be ironed out and that this by no means signals the end of the lockout but it does signify the start of hopeful and serious negotiations. Clearly fans just want to see a deal done while the NHLPA sees this as a very good starting point. There is a window. Can a deal be done? What do you think? In the meantime, stay tuned.

 

Chris Wassel

Chris Wassel

Senior Fantasy Hockey Writer at The Hockey Writers
Simply a hockey and fantasy hockey writer who shoots straight from the hip. We will shout it down from the mountain tops if necessary. No question is too big or too small and in fantasy hockey there is no such thing as a stupid question. Now a proud, accredited member of the FSWA. I am also a New Jersey Devils lead writer, prospects writer, humorist, and so much more. You can find me on Twitter at @ChrisWasselTHW
Chris Wassel
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