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NHL 'going to take a fairly serious hit'

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    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/2005020 1/SPORTSBIZ01/TPSports/Hockey NHL going to take a fairly serious hit By BRIAN MILNER
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2005
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      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/2005020
      1/SPORTSBIZ01/TPSports/Hockey

      NHL 'going to take a fairly serious hit'


      By BRIAN MILNER
      Tuesday, February 1, 2005

      When the National Hockey League eventually resumes play, loyal fans
      in such traditional hockey hotbeds as Toronto, Montreal, Detroit and
      Edmonton will come flooding back. They won't even need much in the
      way of incentives like, say, lower ticket prices to entice them. And
      elsewhere, where the sport has had a long-established toehold, the
      hard-core hockey faithful will be crowding the ticket windows the day
      the league reopens for business.

      That's the conventional wisdom espoused by some sports marketing
      experts. Many industry insiders believe it, too.

      But what if it turns out the assumptions of the optimists are wrong?

      What if it turns out that even diehard supporters can tolerate only
      so much and that promotions and free admission to practices just
      won't make up for the fact NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the club
      owners chose to leave the fans out in the cold when they set off on
      their ruinous all-or-nothing labour strategy?

      "They're going to take a fairly serious hit and it will take them a
      while to rebuild," sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said. Average
      attendance and revenues could fall substantially, depending on the
      length of the work stoppage and the conditions under which the league
      resumes play.

      "All I'm really saying at the end of the day is that it's going to
      hurt," Zimbalist said. "Whether it knocks revenues and attendance and
      ratings down 20 per cent or 40 per cent is impossible to predict,
      because there are so many different scenarios. But one way or the
      other, it's going to be quite damaging."

      Is the NHL's very existence at risk? "I wouldn't predict the demise
      of the NHL, but I don't think the probability is zero, either,"
      Zimbalist said.

      That's one view. The other is that the NHL is different from other
      professional sports leagues because of that staunchly loyal fan base,
      insists Paul Swangard, the managing director of the University of
      Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center and a die-hard Vancouver
      Canucks fan since childhood.

      Unlike baseball and basketball, which lost ground after work
      stoppages in the 1990s, NHL attendance actually rose in the wake of
      the 1994-95 lockout. "While you may see a pullback this time, there
      are certain markets where people are still going to come back,"
      Swangard said. "I just don't think that they have many casual fans,
      although that may be a premise that is disproved fairly quickly."

      Getting Toronto Maple Leafs fans back to the games "won't be our
      biggest challenge," acknowledged Tom Anselmi, the chief operating
      officer of the Leafs' parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and
      Entertainment, although he assured me that management does not take
      fan loyalty for granted.

      "Clearly, there will be a campaign to relaunch hockey, to thank the
      fans for their patience," he said. "I'm sure that the NHL will be
      doing a variety of things at the league level and will be looking for
      us to do things at the local club level."

      And what might those exciting promotions entail? "It could be
      everything from tailgate parties before the games to alumni games up
      at city hall," he said. "We're still working on stuff."

      Unfortunately, tailgate parties and alumni games probably won't d the
      trick for most franchises, whose problems of drawing fans, sponsors
      and television ratings will only worsen as the lockout drags on. And
      even fanatics in big hockey towns will be expecting more than
      rhetoric for putting up with a season or more without their beloved
      sport.

      Swangard and other business watchers see the NHL's rebound from its
      mess as a matter of effectively applying the most basic rules of
      Marketing 101. Simply stated, the league needs to put a more
      entertaining product on the ice on a regular basis; it needs to make
      games more affordable to the average fan; it must do a better job of
      marketing its unique qualities; and it needs to get out of tough
      markets where hockey is never going to be more than the fifth or
      sixth game in town.

      In the immediate aftermath of the lockout, the NHL will have to focus
      on hockey's core attributes, namely the combination of skill, speed
      and hitting that made the game so original in the first place, said
      Brian Findlay, a sports marketing consultant with Stellick Marketing
      & Communications. "Forget about TV contracts for now, forget about
      international marketing growth and new licensing agreements," is
      Findlay's advice. "Just get right back down to the basics of getting
      fans in seats and the rest of the stuff will gradually fall into
      place."
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