SBJ/February 18-24, 2013/Opinion

Assessing the impact of the NHL lockout on fans, sponsors

Nearly two months ago, things looked bleak for the NHL. A second canceled season seemed inevitable, and the deliberate daily drip of damaging discussions degrading the game was disturbing. The players association talked about disbanding, and the legal maneuvering was debilitating. Everyone deserved a D.

Even Commissioner Gary Bettman’s apology on Jan. 9 suggested the league understood it had once again harmed the game and there was unfortunate work to do.

“To the players who were very clear they wanted to be on the ice and not negotiating labor contracts, to our partners who support the league financially and personally, and most importantly to our fans, who love and have missed NHL hockey, I’m sorry,” Bettman said. “I know that an explanation or an apology will not erase the hard feelings that have built up over the past few months, but I owe you an apology nevertheless.”

It’s February, and we’d like to know where things stand now. From a sports perspective, the NHL’s players have come home, teams are fully staffed, and the compressed 48-game schedule is under way. The season even started off with record TV ratings and sellouts across the board. Attention has moved from collective bargaining to expansion and the 2014 Olympic Games.

So, everybody’s good, right?

Not so fast. Modern sports business is largely about media and marketing, and the marketing reality of the NHL’s new situation remains patently unclear. How is the NHL’s marketing going? What would you do if you were the NHL’s commissioner or CMO?

Do you think every NHL sponsor jumped back in with a full activation plan, or do you suspect some sponsors moved away from the NHL for 2013? If their contract didn’t let them, are they considering not renewing once their contract is up? Have some of those newer fans from the NHL’s recent growth years found alternative interests? Could the NHL’s efforts fail to bring them back?

NHL fans have returned to arenas with enthusiasm. Will sponsors do the same?
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
These questions fascinate us, and we know the answers aren’t simple. We understand that collective-bargaining agreements and contracts are necessary realities in building strong partnerships between players and owners. We also know work stoppages can be cyclical in business and that, in the history of our industry, most stoppages led to better situations for both sides.

But professional sports does not even remotely resemble the factory worker or coal miner of the early 1900s nor the retail service worker of 2013. Fans tend to be less sympathetic, particularly the second or third time around. History has shown fans are particularly disappointed when a champion is not awarded (see MLB 1994 and NHL 2005). Fortunately, this won’t be the case for the NHL in 2013.

More importantly, we know people quickly discover they can do other things than watch hockey games … like working on company reports, downloading music or watching back episodes of “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead” by way of iTunes or Netflix.

So we should ask the following:

Will we get a repeat of last year’s NBA, when fans were thrilled by the high-intensity, shortened-schedule?

Many casual NBA fans can’t even remember there was a lockout in 2011.

Will the NHL get that same forgiveness, or has the third lockout in two decades left a permanent mark?

For the moment, it looks like forgiveness is still in vogue. NHL attendance is solid, and the media isn’t taking pot shots at the NHL for having too many empty seats. In fact, ratings are hot.

What about the details of the deal? Is an eight- to 10-year deal long enough for sponsors to feel assured nothing will disrupt the game for another decade?

Absolutely. Many marriages don’t last that long, so getting a guarantee of eight years should be more than enough.

But what about the sponsors? Sponsors haven’t said much on this topic perhaps because they couldn’t hope to turn around in 10 days the way the teams and players did. Does that mean sponsors are still analyzing and pondering their future commitments this late into the season?

We sense that the NHL has worked hard to keep these relationships solid and probably offered tasty make-goods for the damage done. And, logically, for many of these sponsors, this was not their first lockout/strike rodeo. Like the fans, we believe they’re pleased to see a saved season.

“There’s no question the NHL has to ramp up its efforts to appeal not only to its hard-core fan base but also to the casual ticket buyer or TV viewer,” said Howard Dolgon, owner of the AHL Syracuse Crunch and a co-founder and former president of Alan Taylor Communications. “Activities over the past several months left a bad taste in the mouths of fans pertaining to both the NHL and the players. There were no winners in this battle, and the league, teams and players will need to put into place a long-term marketing/PR plan to clean up the damage caused by the lockout. It will take time and be no easy task, but I believe a unified effort from all interested parties will accomplish the goal over time.”

As we roar through the first quarter of 2013, there remain numerous questions related to sponsorship. Which NHL players and clubs will best take advantage of the 48-game season for sponsorship/endorsement purposes? Which sponsorship sales strategies worked best to overcome CBA negativity? How will the NHL strategize to drive new sponsorship sales?

When the going gets tough, the tough skate extra shifts, work harder on their backhand and stay late after practice. We’d expect the same from all the champions in this league. n

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (norman.oreilly@ottawa.com.ca) is a professor of sport business at the University of Ottawa.



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