As the NHL lockout lurches toward the point of no return, warnings are multiplying that the parties are trifling with something very breakable: fan attachment to the game.
Several polls conducted in the past 10 days have found mounting pessimism and indifference among fans, a Toronto corporate branding consultancy discovered the bond between the NHL and Canadian hockey fans may be stretching past the breaking point.
On Tuesday Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a puck historian of some repute, bemoaned the fact the escalating ill will could “imperil a season and a great national sport” in a French-language interview with TVA. He also called the labour disruption a “great danger” for the NHL.
So why isn’t there more urgency from the league and the NHL Players’ Association to sort this thing out?
It’s safe to say some combination of recent history and a dearth of evidence is at work.
We’ve driven by this bit of scenery before, after all.
In February of 2005, during 11th-hour talks to end a five-month lockout, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sent a missive to then-NHLPA head Bob Goodenow that included a dour message: “We cannot now quantify the damage to the league from the lockout.”
Goodenow replied he would stop opposing a salary cap because “we, too, believe the sport will be damaged greatly by the cancellation of this season.”
All that concern – a reflection of the broader feeling among fans and media – couldn’t forestall a lost year.
And those predictions ended up being, well, wrong.
Fans flocked back, leading to seven years of record revenues and attendance .
Still, many people argue this time is different.
“There’s a compounding effect to this, fool me once, fool me twice and all that,” said Bruno Delorme, a sports-marketing expert at Concordia University.
Trust is a key element in building brand loyalty, and Delorme said “the longer the NHL is out of action, that trust breaks down a little bit more.”
When there’s an “interruption of supply” – no hockey – then “you train your customers to go elsewhere,” added Lindsay Meredith, marketing professor at Simon Fraser University.
Elsewhere is a big place.
Meredith predicts lower ticket sales and TV ratings when the NHL comes back, and said the league will have to open its wallet to stoke interest with aggressive marketing.
“You do eventually recover – sometimes,” Meredith said. “And sometimes you don’t.”
There is a sense, then, fans worn ragged by lockout fatigue really mean it this time when they say they’re done.
Three recent surveys – two by polling firms, a third by a fans’ group – yielded broadly similar conclusions: growing apathy among serious fans, even the few who think a settlement is possible don’t much care.
Which may all be true, but there isn’t a lot of hard evidence linking the way hockey fans feel at the height of an emotional labour dispute to crumbling future revenues.
It has happened elsewhere, people are often quick to raise the 1994 baseball strike – led by NHLPA head Don Fehr.
It took years for baseball to bounce back, didn’t it? It did, but baseball isn’t hockey.
What little data there is shows the attachment to Canada’s favourite winter pastime is resilient.
A forthcoming Environics study, which quizzed Canadians about their feelings toward national symbols, found the perception of hockey is holding steady.
It’s just one data point, and hockey is the only sport among the options, but in 1997, when the question was first asked, 30 per cent of respondents agreed the game was an important symbol of Canadian-ness. The figure is now 44 per cent, basically unchanged from 2010.
Another Environics report this past spring found the number of self-identified hardcore hockey fans – something the NHL and its corporate partners play close attention to – has held steady for some time.
Attendance in the key large NHL markets was at or near capacity last year, so owners can be forgiven for thinking the future will be okay as long as those who care about hockey outnumber those who actually go to games.
That’s a given in Canada.
Not so much in places such as Dallas, St. Louis and Colorado, which are trying to rebuild their fan base – markets such as Columbus, Florida and Nashville will emerge weakened, but they were soft to begin with.
The experts fear something precious and ephemeral – trust, faith – is being lost in this rancorous dispute. The belligerents clearly feel otherwise.
The field of cognitive psychology, which has a lot to say about why people aren’t very good at predicting their own future behaviour, suggests they may be right.
With a report from Eric Duhatschek in Calgary