SPECTOR: PR front is only part of NHL war
Spector / Special to FOXSports.com
If one were to measure the current NHL lockout solely on the PR war,
the league, quite bluntly, is kicking the NHLPA's ass.
Poll after poll taken of NHL fans show a majority favor the league
and the team owners in this dispute, considering them "more fair and
reasonable" than the players.
On the league Web site is a section dedicated to CBA news containing
up-to-date â" if one-sided â" coverage of the lockout. Meanwhile,
commissioner Gary Bettman and his chief lieutenant Bill Daly have in
recent months made the rounds of sports talks shows and meetings with
owners and season ticket holders in several NHL cities, drumming up
support for cost certainty.
They've especially focussed on small markets like Edmonton, Calgary
and Carolina, providing assurances to worried fans that cost
certainty will save their franchises.
The NHLPA, on the other hand, has so little coverage of the lockout
on its Web site, one wouldn't even know there was a labor dispute
going on. Executive director Bob Goodenow and members of the players'
executive board have made little attempt to sway the opinion of
It's obvious the NHLPA ceded the public relations war to the NHL a
long time ago. The players have known since the 1992 strike and the
1994 lockout that, regardless of the strength of their position, no
matter the validity in their presentations, most hockey fans would
still paint them as the bad guys.
As noted here earlier, the NHL has been able to capitalize on the
fans ignorance of both its' contentious history of labor negotiations
with its players and the factors leading up to this current work
stoppage. One has to give credit where it's due as the league has
done a superb job of winning over the fans.
The majority of fans who support the owners and Bettman in this
lockout aren't stupid, but either don't know or simply don't care
about the messy details behind this lockout. All they want is their
hockey back, and millionaire players make an easy target for their
Fan opinion, of course, has no bearing on the outcome of this
lockout. Hockey fans were powerless to prevent it and powerless to
halt its continuation. Their support of Bettman and the owners won't
convince them to return to negotiations any more than their negative
opinion of Bob Goodenow and the players will sway the NHLPA to accept
a hard cap.
So why has the league spent so much time and money to sway public
opinion? The only reason is to minimize potential damage to its fan
base, counting on them to return when the league finally returns to
action, whether it's next week, next month or sometime next year.
The court of public opinion is not where the NHL labor dispute will
be settled, but rather by negotiation between the two sides or, in
the most extreme scenario, in the respective labor boards in the
United States and Canada. Having fan support will mean nothing to the
league if it's unable to prove it's done everything it could to avoid
an impasse before those labor boards.
Having pledged that cost certainty will deliver a better, more
affordable game, the NHL could be playing with fire if its cap system
fails to achieve expectations.
The main reason hockey fans side with the league is the belief that
player salaries drive ticket prices, but Bettman was finally forced
to admit last month that the league has no control over how much
teams charge for tickets, as the prices are determined by each market.
The league implied that it needed cost certainty to make the game
more affordable. Should the league cap salaries but ticket prices
remain expensive, fans will feel betrayed and consequently less
inclined to believe the league's contention that blame rests with the
Fan unrest could be further stoked if the quality of the NHL product
fails to improve under cost certainty. The decline of the game over
the past 10 years, not the rise in salaries, led to declining TV
ratings and too many empty seats in arenas in the United States. Many
fans complained they were being overcharged for a boring product.
While Brendan Shanahan's recent player-management "summit" produced
positive recommendations, the NHL's history of resistance to change
doesn't bode well for their implementation, which in turn could
whittle away at fan support.
Another factor is if cost certainty fails to narrow the gap between
big- and small-market clubs. The NHL's proposed $64 million revenue
sharing isn't going to accomplish this.
Without a better method of revenue sharing, little will change. Big-
market teams will continue to make a lot of money and will
undoubtedly find ways to spend it on high-priced players, while small-
market clubs will continue to struggle to retain their best players,
essentially becoming feeder systems to big-market teams.
Small-market fans are counting on cost certainty to change this, and
if it doesn't, the NHL could see serious erosion in support from
It's been easy for the league to win the PR war this time around, but
if cost certainty fails, it'll find it tougher to make the players
scapegoats for its financial problem. That will make it a much harder
sell to fans the next time the NHL and NHLPA lock horns.