Has the NHL brand suffered permanent damage?


(Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Are National Hockey League owners and players killing the league’s brand? It might be a dramatic question considering how the league rebounded from the 2004-05 lockout, posting record attendance levels and growing into a US$3.3 billion business over seven years. No matter how many NHL diehards said they’d quit watching the league, it simply didn’t happen.

But the latest lockout is the second to occur in the past decade and the third under commissioner Gary Bettman’s watch. No other pro sports league has experienced as much labour turmoil as the NHL in the past two decades, and for some consumers, the league has become an increasingly unreliable product.

We asked three sports marketing experts how the NHL lockout will affect the league’s reputation and whether consumers will finally punish the NHL at the box office. There was no consensus on how the situation will unfold, but all three agreed on one thing: once the NHL’s back, the league will be fighting an uphill battle in its weakest markets.

*The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited and condensed.

André Richelieu, sports marketing professor at Université Laval: The bond of trust has been broken, in my opinion, [between the league and] many fans. And this will have an impact on how many fans come back to the arenas when the lockout ends. But also, in what state of mind will these fans come back to the game? I think that this time around, people are much more upset, they’re angry, they feel they’re being taken hostage by the league and players, and that’s not good at all.

Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center: What makes the NHL unique among the other sports leagues is that they have this core base in key markets that will come back as soon as the doors are open. There has been no sign, and no research out there, to suggest that those core fans are disappearing in the midst of another labour dispute.

John Lord, sports marketing professor/director at Saint Joseph’s University (Pennsylvania): You’re never going to lose the person who shows up at the Wells Fargo Center wearing a Flyers jersey and painting his face orange and going crazy every time Claude Giroux scores a goal.

Swangard: You’ve got a situation in Toronto where, despite almost ridiculous ticket prices and a ridiculous amount of subpar performances by the Leafs, there’s still a waiting list for tickets.

Lord: But there are a lot of other people out there that the league needs that might be a little more difficult to draw, just because they’ve lost patience with this.

Richelieu: It’s marketing myopia to believe that because we have the best fans in the world, that they will come back to the NHL. There are other ways to watch hockey; there are other ways to entertain yourselves with sports or other artistic and cultural activities. And already, people are getting accustomed to spending their disposable income on other entertainment options. The biggest danger is that the NHL believes that everything starts and ends with the NHL. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Lord: Speaking as a marketer, when you don’t have your product in front of your market, it just becomes more difficult to maintain their attention. It’s the same thing with Hostess Twinkies. [Editor’s note: Twinkie maker Hostess announced two weeks ago that it was going out of business.] If they’re not in production for a while as this hedge fund sells off the brand and somebody else buys it and starts producing Twinkies again, people are going to switch to other things.

Richelieu: The face of Canada is changing every day because of immigration. Today, if I’m not mistaken, 55% of people living in Toronto were born outside of Canada. Their sport of preference is soccer, not hockey. [Ed’s note: The City of Toronto website says that half the city’s population was born outside of Canada.]

Lord: TV money is everything in sports. You can see it with the [NCAA] college conferences. You can see it in baseball. Why did the Dodgers sell for $2 billion? Because of huge local cable contracts. …The NHL has always struggled to get the ratings and have a true national footprint [in the U.S.] with television, and this is just going to make things even more difficult.

Richelieu: At this point in time, we might see [with the NHL] what happened in baseball, after 1994-95. The strike basically deprived the [Montreal] Expos of, at least, participation in the playoffs. Attendance in the U.S. stadiums declined by 20%, and it took five years—and the famous home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire—to see attendance and TV ratings come back to the level they were at before the strike. And baseball is as much a part of the identity of the U.S. as hockey is in Canada.

Swangard: As a general statement, fans have gotten used to this stuff. No one likes it, but it’s become a reality of the modern sports business. With hockey fans, there’s a degree of venom that comes as the issue of the lockout is raised in local pubs and watering holes. But it’s that venom that gives the NHL the hope of survival.

Richelieu:The biggest danger—and this would appear if the season is totally cancelled—is that [the fans’] frustration and anger is transformed into apathy or indifference.