I am a lifelong hockey fan, which is a noteworthy claim coming from someone whose childhood years in Mississippi in the 1970s definitely did not include playing hockey. My father was French-Canadian, so I was indoctrinated on hockey history and the game itself at an early age. Today, I am still a hockey fan, and while I love the National Hockey League I am now making a point to call myself a hockey fan, not an NHL fan. The reason is simple: The NHL does not care much about its fans, so why should fans give emotionally and financially to the NHL?
I am convinced of the NHL’s lack of regard for fans given that the third work stoppage in the last 18 years is about to commence barring a miraculous 11th hour deal between the NHL and NHL Players Association. NHL team owners want to reduce the proportion of hockey related revenue players receive. Of course, players have no interest in giving up their piece of the money pie. The result is going to be another lockout. The prospects for a quick resolution are not good – heck, the two sides are hardly talking to each other to negotiate a settlement even though the deadline has been on the horizon for months.
For hockey fans, the takeaway is clear: the NHL does not care about its fans. On the surface, such callous disregard for the impact a lockout will have on fan relationships seems unthinkable. How could a business not work tirelessly to make sure its core product remains on the market and available to its customers?
The reality is that fans are down the list in importance as a customer for the league. The NHL’s primary customer is its team owners. It is understandable that owners’ interests must be protected; no owners equals no NHL. But, the perception is that owners’ interests are being served to the exclusion of paying customers. However, fans are not even at the top of the charts when it comes to paying customers. Media rights holders and corporate sponsors are a higher priority for the NHL than the hockey fan or family that ponies up for tickets to watch their local team.
The NHL will keep players locked out until a deal is reached that satisfies the interests of the league’s key customers, the owners. Oh, a sense of urgency might develop if media and corporate partners become vocal about the need to get back on the ice. As for fans, our voice is not being heard even though social media gives us a platform for venting our frustrations.
The fan base for hockey is much smaller than other major sports in the US, but fans are rather passionate about their hockey. The expectation is that these fans will return when the labor mess is sorted out. Don’t be so sure, NHL. After all, hockey is only a game. And, as long as you continue to play games with your fans do not expect us to welcome you back with open arms if there is a protracted lockout.