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The NHL’s Challenge – Winning Back Fans

01/07/2013

The National Hockey League, with its season teetering on the brink of extinction, has somehow come up with a way to end the lockout and salvage a portion of its 2012/2013 season.

The third NHL work stoppage in commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure began when the owners locked out the players on Sept. 16, despite seeing league revenues rise to an all-time high of $3.3 billion the previous season. In total, 625 regular season games, including the outdoor Winter Classic, and the All-Star Game were canceled.

The NHL canceled the entire 2004-2005 season because of an owners’ lockout of players, and played a shortened 48-game schedule following a lockout in 1994-1995.

This time for many fans it is too late.

The Super Bowl is in four weeks. The NFL playoffs are in full-swing. And this season’s parings look to present fans with high-caliber talent vs. high-quality talent.

In a normal NHL season, January through March – leading into the playoffs is when the season gets interesting for fans. As it stands today the league has yet to determine when training camps will open or when the season will begin. In one scenario, a 48-game schedule would begin Jan. 19.

Of course the whole brouhaha creating the lockout and washed out nearly the entire season was about money. But what seems to have been missed by the owners is the fact that not having the season was teaching fans that they can get along just fine without the NHL. In the cold, dark nights in Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota fans are finding alternative time wasters using mobile devices to play, read and learn. What a concept!

Without paying customers to generate hockey-related revenue, the entire lockout is all the more useless, so it is imperative that the NHL and the players association work together to get fans back into the game.

And, this time, simply painting “Thank You Fans” on the ice again is not going to cut it.

“We’ll be talking to the fans, most importantly,” Bettman said Sunday morning. “But at this point in time, we still have some work to do.”

Letting fans “get back to watching people who are skating” is of the utmost importance, and to do so, the league would be well served to offer its Center Ice out-of-market television package either for free or at a significantly reduced cost for the significantly reduced season that is soon to begin.

The key with freebies and discounts is to offer them in a way that encourages fans to take advantage of the chance to see hockey, but without damaging the league’s tenuous revenue streams. The Center Ice package is one thing that the NHL can use to set a league-wide example of the recognition that without fans, there is no $3.3 billion revenue pie to split.

Hopefully the brains at the NHL can figure out how to lure fans back quicker than they inadvertently drove them away.

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