NHL Feeling Minimal Pressure As Lockout Looms

As the September 15th deadline approaches and an(other) NHL lockout looms, the league and its owners appears to be maintaining a delicate balance wherein the potential benefits of going into battle with the players far outweigh any potential backlash incurred by a work stoppage. While all signs point to the players gaining the upper hand in the much-talked about public relations battle, the reality is that the NHL can afford to temporarily alienate those who love and support the game without permanently altering its position within the context of professional sport in North America. As such, they are free to take their time in seeking out the best possible deal without the threat of meaningful or lasting repercussions.

All of this is true for two reasons.

Gary Bettman (Tom Turk/THW)

One, the NHL quite simply does not register on a large scale. Follow the right people on twitter and all you might read about these days is a mix of Breaking Bad, Clint Eastwood and the threat of a lockout, but the fact remains that a potential work stoppage in hockey would be a small blip on the wide panorama that is the fall sports season, especially south of the border. September & October offer up a veritable horn of plenty for sports fans, and the amount of attention given to and revenue derived from football, for example, literally dwarfs that of hockey.

At this point in time last year, the NFL had avoided a work stoppage largely because there was too much at stake; consider that the NFL’s TV deal alone is worth nine times the estimated total revenue currently generated by the NHL, and you begin to see how hockey has a long way to go in terms of feeling the pressure to avoid scheduling disturbances at all costs.

Now, $3.2 billion is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and it would appear as though NHL owners are more than willing to take their time to ensure that the pie is carved up as they see fit. However, in relative terms, the inherent risk is minimal, mainly because the NHL and its owners are more than confident in the fact that established revenue sources will largely remain intact. Not only will the league receive its money from NBC regardless of a work stoppage (on top of the fact that they’ll be saving money hand over fist by not having to dole out player’s salaries), but the league also appears to be banking on plenty of eyes on the screens and rears in the seats if and when play gets underway in 2012-13.

This other side of the coin was expressed quite clearly in a comment made commissioner Gary Bettman in reference to any potential damage incurred by a lockout, the third on his watch. In his words (via the Globe and Mail),

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

While the underlying message and relative merits of such a comment are very much up for debate and discussion, the crux of the message cannot be denied: those who like hockey, like it a lot. In Canada and certainly in more traditional US hockey markets, it would appear as though folks crave hockey to such a degree that work stoppages only fuel their desire for the game. According to Canadian Business, “after the two previous labour stoppages, the NHL immediately increased its per game attendance figures, squashing any concerns about fleeing customers.” While the increase in attendance was minimal but noticeable after ’94-’95, the aftermath of the ’04-’05 lockout produced a “2.4% increase in attendance over the 2003-04 season, and in the process, the league averaged a record 16,955 fans per contest.” On top of that, “for the next three years, the NHL continued breaking its regular season attendance records.”

Whether it’s a case of absence making the heart grow fonder or growth fueled by new arenas and fresh talent (as the quoted article suggests), the numbers don’t lie – hockey fans have shown that they are more than willing to return to the game they love with open arms despite being spurned by the league they support, and Bettman seems prepared to hang his hat on this post for a third time.

While it does appear as though the league and its players are headed for a stalemate that will shut things down for a yet to be determined period of time, the factors mentioned above remain a boon for only so long. Logic may dictate that play could and should resume anywhere between November 23rd – January 1st, should the league close its doors to the players on September 15th; however, all bets are off the longer a potential work stoppage rolls on, as all parties involved – owners, players, fans, sponsors and networks alike – each inch closer to their respective breaking points.

One can only hope that a fair and equitable resolution can be reached in the shortest amount of time possible, but don’t count on the owners backing down anytime soon.

(And in case you’re thinking that there’s something that hockey fans can do to ramp up the pressure, Harrison Mooney does a great job here of debunking that myth.)