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Toronto Maple Leafs fans wear paper bags before the Maple Leafs game against New York Islanders in NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday March 20, 2012. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs fans wear paper bags before the Maple Leafs game against New York Islanders in NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday March 20, 2012. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Daily Grind

Dowbiggin: Lockout will force NHL to take its medicine, only question is when Add to ...

For the locked-out NHL, it’s damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Start a portion of a season soon and absorb the scorn of fans and the indifference of sponsors, or wait until next fall to resume play and absorb the inevitable backlash then over misreading the public mood.

It’s the nightmare scenario of the NHL. The fans and clients the NHL so meticulously assembled are headed for the door.

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“My clients are beyond frustration with what’s happened, “ says Brian Cooper, president and CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group which handles significant NHL sponsors. “The public has soured on them. Better to wait till the brand is forgiven. By then, it’s probably next summer at the earliest before people will consider the NHL brand again.”

“As a brand or sponsor there’s no time to do whiz-bang plans for half a season. We have back-to-business plans in place in case they settle, but they’re diminishing by the day. You can’t replace the dollars taken away, even if the NHL comes back tomorrow.”

Cooper says corporate clients want three things: Consistency, accessibility and an emotional attachment to product. All three have been shattered since the Sept. 15 lockout start. “The effect has been to drive away the casual fan and have the avid fans saying, ‘This thing’s over’,” says Cooper. “People just become callous to any news about the league. No sponsor wants to buy that.”

While there have been no announcements of defections yet by the league’s major sponsors such as McDonald’s, Molson Coors or Scotiabank, they are all looking at their options with no date for a resumption of play. The biggest fear for the NHL is that competitors may sign away a corporate client for an extended contract, denying them to the league for years to come.

With no sponsors, broadcasters are nervous, too. So now the league can only decide whether to take its pain now or next fall. Hardly what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman envisioned when he convinced the league’s owners to wage their third labour war since 1994.

Not so different

Hockey journalists stress that it’s not valid to compare the NHL and its labour dynamic to those in other leagues. The NHL culture is simply different. The sport allows fighting, it has deep traditions in Canada that don’t apply to other leagues.

But isn’t that sense of exceptionalism precisely the problem with the NHL? As the joke goes you can always tell the NHL, you just can’t tell it much. With decades of Donald Fehr’s history to study and innovations in the other sports, the NHL went old school. It clung to the entrenched self image that makes it the sports equivalent of the angry guy at the party.

Don’t believe what’s been written that baseball in 1994 was different from the NHL of today. There was a hopeless business plan in MLB with small markets losing money. Baseball owners were no less sure of their unique status for decades. National pastime and all that. But even the rockheads in baseball learned it was pointless to engage in a labour battle when both sides could make money by partnering. Now they’re prospering.

It’s time the NHL stopped gazing admiringly in the mirror at its rugged self and took a look at how it could be more like the other, more successful leagues. Starting with its incessant need to put the help in its place.

Tweet nothings

@PatPark23 Dec 18/88:Colorful #Leafs coach John Brophy was fired. Reggie Dunlop in Slapshot was said to be inspired by Broph. pic.twitter.com/GdyW8Hlp ”. Nah, Reggie was way too tame for Broph.

Bet your bottom dollar

A New Jersey judge heard arguments Tuesday about allowing sports betting in the state. Governments starved for revenue are looking at the vast amounts wagered illegally on sports and hoping to get a pierce of the action. The pro sports leagues are opposing the action, saying it would increase likelihood of game fixing.

Under the “dog ate my homework” category, NBA commissioner David Stern might have made the lamest case against legalized sports betting. It interrupts the live experience in arenas. “You would hear all kinds of cheering and moaning and groaning having only to do with the point spread,” Stern said in a deposition about the days when gamblers dominated the stands at the NBA. “It’s disruptive.”

Mr. Stern has never struck us as out of touch, but perhaps he’s heard of fantasy sports? In any crowd at a sports event today you can hear fans reacting as their fantasy players rise or fall in the game. Yes, there are bettors in the crowd, too, who are more interested in the spread than the win.

But banning sports betting because it will affect crowd noise? Please, David.

dowbboy@shaw.ca / @dowbboy

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