NHL 'going to take a fairly serious hit'
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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
"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,"
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
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