Is There An Effective Method of Protesting an NHL Lockout?

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If a person were to paint with a broad brush when describing fans of the four major sports in North America, there are a few conclusions that would be reached. NFL fans are the most prevalent, but the sport also has the ability to draw the most casual fans. The NBA is a huge draw in major urban centers, but its popularity is constantly rising and falling with the passing of stars from the scene and the emergence of new ones. MLB has arguably the oldest fanbase, with its emphasis on nostalgia and the way things “ought to be.”

Then, there’s the NHL, which is often treated like the bastard stepchild of the sports world because of the lack of coverage it gets from major media outlets like ESPN. Yelps of derision often greet the sport because of its television contract with NBC Sports Network (which you can bet media critics will ALWAYS helpfully point out used to be the Outdoor Life Network), but amid all of that, it has to be said that among fans of the four major sports, hockey fans are simultaneously the most tenacious in the defense of “their” sport, as well as eager to pile on when a newbie tries to enter the discussion.

Discussion about this type of insular culture among fans can wait for another time, but instead we will focus for the purposes of this examination on the passion of hockey fans. There simply aren’t very many “casual” hockey fans, and this ardent zeal for the game has never been more evident than in the aftermath of the NHL lockout that took place in 2004. This work stoppage, which caused the cancellation of an entire season, is rivaled only by the MLB player’s strike in 1994 in terms of the potential damage that it could have caused to the game.

In baseball’s case, it was the home run race between St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire and high-flying Chicago Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa that really recaptured the nation’s attention, and set the tone for the next several years of what we now know were steroid-amplified home run totals and massive growth of the game. Even though we are less than two decades removed from it, this strike didn’t kill MLB, but instead has enabled the game to grow because of the steroid era, as well as the embrace of international players and development, keeping fans intrigued in the game and staying on-board despite all the controversy surrounding it.

Meanwhile, the NHL enacted a series of massive rule changes in the aftermath of their lockout, and with the more free-flowing version of the game now seven years in, fans have come back to the league in bigger numbers than could have ever been anticipated. The league made $3.3 billion last year, and after huge comebacks of the game in strongholds like Chicago and Pittsburgh, there are more serious contenders for the Stanley Cup than ever before.

Factor in the growth of the game in smaller markets, as evidenced by the free agent destinations of this offseason being Raleigh and St. Paul, and you have a recipe that is clearly working, but if the dark tones that are shadowing the current negotiations to sign a new Collective Bargaining Agreement are any indication, things aren’t as happy-go-lucky at NHL headquarters as you would think.

The first domino to fall towards a second lockout in less than a decade was the imposition of a deadline of September 15th by the owners. On this date, if a CBA isn’t agreed upon or an extension isn’t allowed, the players will be locked out, and so will begin an inexorable slide toward what could potentially be a chasm the league simply would not be able to climb out of. If games end up getting cancelled, there are legitimate questions about whether the league could sustain such a body blow. With several teams already massively in the red, and with a club in the San Jose Sharks who sold out every single game last year and made the playoffs STILL losing money, can the league afford even the shortest of fan revolts in this situation?

Gary Bettman seems to think so, if for no other reason than he recognizes the ferocity with which hockey fans follow the game. In a statement recently following a negotiating session between the owners and the NHLPA, Bettman had several interesting comments, but the one that set the internet on fire was his one-liner about the last work stoppage:

“We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans.”

If you’re willing to use your powers of inference in this instance (and, with a lawyer like Gary Bettman being the one at the microphone, you almost have to in order to derive any meaning out of what he says), then the message is pretty clear on this one. He is admitting that without the fans, the league would cease to exist, but he is also assuming that the fans will come back whether the players are locked out on September 15th or not. He is banking on the loyalty of hockey fans to draw them back into a sport that will have chewed them up and spit them out twice in less than a decade, and it can be logically assumed that the owners in the league feel the same way.

Before we get to anything else, the question then must logically be asked: is it safe to assume that the fans of the sport will come back if there is indeed a work stoppage? Conventional wisdom, as well as the nature of hockey fans, would seem to indicate that the answer to this question is yes. Even after losing an entire season to a lockout in 2005, you’re not likely to run across a single diehard hockey fan who stopped watching the sport as a result. The league is banking on those same diehards to let their love of hockey help them find their way back to the NHL, and there is little evidence to support a contradictory point of view.

After all, what other option is there? Sure, fans in several major NHL markets like Toronto and Chicago have the option of attending AHL games instead, and there are always leagues like the ECHL, OHL, and NCAA to fill the hockey void for fans in other markets. Even the internet can help fans out in this regard, enabling streaming of games from far flung countries like Russia with the KHL and Australia with the AIHL.

Even with these options, the NHL is still essentially the only game in town. They have the best players, the best marketing, and the best options for watching games, with coverage like GameCenter and Center Ice making it easier than ever for fans to keep an eye on the game. Add in the Facebook and Twitter aspects of the league’s social connectivity, and you can see why they would be led to believe that they have a monopoly on the sport in the eyes of the fans.

Gary Bettman (Tom Turk/THW)

With this notion that the league has a complete monopoly on the sport, are fans truly powerless to express their discontent in a way that will get the powers-that-be’s attention? These guys are clearly willing to fight to the death for whatever ideals they are going into these negotiations with, whether they be a lowered salary cap or term limits on contracts, or the death of things like escrow, and that unwillingness to bend may spell doom for playing a full 82 games this year. That leaves fans in a position of weakness, because they are simply expected to fall back in line once the chambers are emptied on each side’s pistols in this duel.

So what is a reasonable reaction for fans in this case? Yeah, there is no way that simply tweeting at the league or writing them a strongly worded letter will stop the wheels of capitalism from churning during this impending work stoppage, but are there some other actions that could send the message that fans are dissatisfied, and perhaps expedite the negotiating process, even if it’s by a miniscule amount.

To dispel one notion, boycotting the league on social media simply isn’t going to do the trick. There is a Twitter account called @UnfollowNHLSept, which is advocating that fans do several things to boycott the league, including unfollow the league’s Twitter and Facebook pages if the players are locked out on September 15th. The account has gained some traction on the web, picking up over 2000 followers and sporting its own Tumblr page with ideas for getting the league’s attention.

Unfortunately, a dip in followers isn’t going to cause the league to suddenly change its tune. There is a wonderful statement in the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times” by the reporter David Carr, when he says that a reader of the print edition of the paper is worth $1, and an online reader is worth a penny, or even half a penny. That is almost assuredly true about the league’s social media base, which is a nice big number of fans, but doesn’t truly represent the power of the league’s base of consumers. Since it doesn’t cost money to follow the league, you can bet they aren’t going to place a lot of value in losing a chunk of their “friends” on the internet.

In that boycott vein, however, there was another interesting tactic suggested by the Toronto Sun, which would be for season ticket holders of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings to refuse to buy tickets for the upcoming Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium if a lockout occurs.

This tactic would have the desired effect of getting the league’s attention in its pocketbook, but its effects would likely be short-lived. Instead of causing there to be a slew of empty seats at the league’s showcase event, it would merely give the chance for opportunistic fans to get better seats at the huge venue, and it seems unlikely that such a move could be coordinated enough to achieve the result of causing the league to rethink a lockout.

There has even been talk about a nuclear option for fans, which would involves divorcing themselves completely for the league. That means not paying for tickets, jerseys, or season TV packages, and not supporting the league in any discernible way. This method would definitely get the league to take notice, because this lack of expression of enthusiasm for the game would hurt the brand in ways that individual actions could not.

The only downside of this would be that fans would have to be really committed in order for it to work, and it doesn’t seem likely that the diehard fans of the game would be able to stay away forever. The itch to come back would simply be too strong, and even if they never bought another ticket to a game, they would certainly watch on TV or purchase Center Ice packages, which would still benefit the league and help soften the blow of losing those butts in the seats.

Perhaps the best solution, however, would be a simple middle ground approach, and that would be to cancel subscriptions to Gamecenter and Center Ice. These packages benefit the league immensely, giving their games more exposure and also lining the pockets of league officials. The NHL seems to recognize this, because they have already made arrangements to refund a portion of the purchase price for those plan holders should they end up locking out and missing games. In that way, however, they still get to pocket at least some of the money, so this presents an opportunity for fans to make a pretty simple statement that could have maximum impact.

If they are content to simply watch their local game on TV, the national games when they are available on NBC Sports Network, or resort to pirated feeds (which THW does not endorse), then this option is by far the best one to register discontent with the actions of the league. Not buying tickets, especially by season ticket holders, would have a bigger net impact on wallets, but unfortunately for the fans, there would surely be others, especially in hotbeds like Montreal, willing to pick up the slack.

That, perhaps more than any other, is the biggest obstacle facing an effective backlash against the league in the event of a lockout. Even though the internet has been a tremendous tool in allowing fans to have avenues to express their opinions, it hasn’t been fully harnessed in terms of its power to organize, simply because there are so many voices shouting into the void.

Any of these scenarios could potentially play out if the league locks out, and maybe fans will surprise logical thinkers and move away from the game in droves. Whatever the case may be, there will be damage done to the game if the league locks out again, and the uncertainty over what that damage could be should actually frighten the league, and hopefully they will pay attention to the discontent among their consumers.

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