So the National Hockey League along with the 30 teams it seeks to represent and the National Hockey League Players Association have apparently come to terms for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Color me “who gives a fuck” that the over-reaching owners of the NHL and a bunch of whiny sports guys finally put their differences far enough aside to play the game for the fans that pay their salaries in the first place. Big effin whoop that you stopped being a bunch of selfish ingrates rather than smart businessmen and acted in a professional and respectful manner. Honestly, it’s about friggin time the collective bullshit agreement was figured out, now hurry up and ratify it and quit with the nonsense.
The lockout by the owners didn’t hurt the players and won’t in the medium run hurt the owners or the league itself. It hurt everyone else though. All businesses and their employees that depend to some degree on the function of the league for some portion of revenue, all of the hockey related staff that were furloughed, laid off or had their salaries and hours cut be them at arenas or support sites or within the league itself, every blogger and small media outlet that dedicates itself to the health of the sport that lost page views and listeners and viewers and thus advertising revenues and everyone else that was hurt financially by the hooplah of the NHL.
The emotional perspective of betrayal to some fans is beyond writing about at this point.
That said, the most important focus of the NHL now is getting back to the business of hockey. Don’t pretend that the league is somehow excited the lockout is over; we don’t buy it for a second anyhow and it just makes you look more ignorant than we already know you are. Don’t make with the celebratory “we won” moments of sandbagging fans into believing the owners care one iota about them; we know they don’t and many of us aren’t convinced the players do either. Don’t even start with the faux-appologies either; if you were really sorry you wouldn’t have delayed the season intentionally by 116 days in the first place, so keep the hollow nonsense to a minimum. Sure, say your piece if you’re willing to admit to the hurt but really…
…Just get back to hockey with the normal fanfare of any season’s beginning and STFU about the lockout already. There’s nothing you can do to change the agony your fans and local business partners feel so don’t even bother with the semantics and pseudo-satiating gestures. Just get back to doing what you’re supposed to do: putting the highest caliber hockey in the world on the ice of 30 North American cities.
From a league perspective, the damage to the NHL’s reputation is once again mired in buckshot. It sustained hits from nearly every angle. The teams, particularly some of the more outspoken owners like the Boston Bruins are even worse off. And, some of the players too…
Yet, we know from the past that fans will return because their love of the sport rises above the players, owners and league itself. It might be filled with innuendo and false starts, and hopefully will come with the financial struggle that the teams and the league does deserve for it’s actions in the short term, but ultimately the fans will return, be it immediately or over time, from the old school or in building a new generation, but the league itself will sustain and survive and likely grow beyond even the previous prescient set. How it chooses to use this opportunity post-lockout to engage fans is a completely different conversation.
If the league as a whole really wants to “make things right” with the fans there are a few steps they should immediately work toward in the first place:
Say what you will about Gary Bettman’s stewardship in growing the league’s size, revenue and exposure much of his legacy will be forever wrapped in work stoppages and labor disputes. For every positive one can seek to tie to his tenure there’s nothing to undo the perception that Bettman just doesn’t care about the average hockey fan and the uncontested continued support of Bettman by the owners is inevitably going to be a thorn in many a fan’s side. He’s played the enemy all too well in the previous labor disputes, in the questionable ways the league has handled expansion, relocation and ownership changes, in the rule changes, in the marketing and promotion, in the broadcast rights negotiations, and so on. Even if you can come to give him a pass on some aspects that ultimately seem to have paid off, it’s impossible to overlook the general negative attitude many have toward him as a leader for the league.
If the league really does mean well for its own future and the respect of the fans as the most important element to its survival it needs to seek new leadership and allow Bettman to leave as quietly and gracefully as possible. It would be nice for him to recognize the end of his tenure is here and step down himself having gotten through the CBA or the owners should be able to understand the need to pressure him down but ultimately if nothing else, the continued negative response of fans toward him should inevitably strip him of his title before anything else goes wrong for him.
That’s not to advocate some kind of “fan favorite” has to be installed just a change of scenery with some kind of reasonable voice (maybe one like Daley) is due for the league in this new era and it starts with Bettman.
Doing something special beyond just having a season
Great, there’s a season. Again, who cares after you shat all over what should have been the beginning of it.
Don’t over-celebrate the late start of the season. It is thoroughly insulting to everyone who kept watch of the sport during the lockout. That’s like me expecting a party because I showed up to work at noon rather than at nine, or worse that I showed up for Monday morning’s meeting on Friday afternoon expecting not only the meeting but a welcome parade. The league chose to eliminate the season’s official beginning and the fan favorite Winter Classic and the less-then-loved All Star Game (though most fans are probably mourning the loss of the ever-fun skills competitions) and simply making the belated beginning a big party won’t cut it.
Neither will painting thanks on the ice. You know what. Don’t even bother. It’s insulting. Think of something more creative.
Since we are doing a shortened season to make up for the loss the league needs to work in something else enticing and uniquely original to give back to the fans as a whole. It obviously can’t be an outdoor game, or a wasteful bunch of scrimmages showcasing big names (sorry, the All Star Game), but the marketing masterminds should come up with something (preferably not too kitchy) within the schedule to make some kind of hype and inspire the fans. A series of mid-season league-wide big promotions hyping some special rivalries worked into the revised schedule that really perk the overall interest in the sport or something. Maybe it’s special edition merch available about this special series of rivalry games at a deep discounted price. Maybe it’s expanded coverage of these special rivalry games with broadcast partners and no blackout or additional fan costs. Maybe it’s something else. I haven’t given it as much thought but beyond the usual marketing blitz of we’re back, they need to do something … something not to commemorate a bad event like the lockout but to highlight some good events so the season will have some kind of meaning.
Increased Hockey Access
Rumor has it the league is going to work on discounted package and free limited access to it’s Center Ice cable service. This is a good start. Predictable and well tested. It will get more eyeballs back to the most important element of the sport, consumption… and the financial hit of the missing subscriptions shouldn’t be too harrowing as a way to provided much needed short-term engagement with disillusioned fans.
In addition to giving away or deep discounting Center Ice cable package they should offer free or deep discounted to the Premium package on the mobile apps and the GameCenter portion of the website as well. I realize it’s a lot of revenue stream punching if you do all three but as a way to bolster digital consumption and please fans it’s not a bad idea. It’s also could be progressive in that you could bundle all three assets for a fee too, would take more work from the Dev team to coordinate universal passwording and coordinated billing but it doesn’t have to be an impossibility. Driving eyeballs isn’t going to hurt fans in seats, contrary, with the digital assets it might help enhance the at-game experience.
Another option is to loosen or eliminate some of the regional blackout rules for teams for the season (they shouldn’t exist at all but that’s another story – maybe making a priority to address this would be helpful). We see it here in the tri-state where Isles and Devs games are left unbroadcast. It’s stupid and should be waved for the time being. These blackout restrictions also exist on digital, for instance, when a team has a mobile app they can’t parse the real-time scoring or highlights or anything from the NHL main feeds for the local team app. There’s no good reason that the league provides the web platform and serves that information within the template but doesn’t do the same on mobile (unless there’s some terribly arcane legal reason which the league should make it a priority to fix).
Any other properties of the league itself, like the NHL online shop, NHL Classics, etc. need to all pitch in and maybe that begins to quell some of the pain of losing three months of this season for now. What would be much more appropriate is to not end all of these special promotions and discounts when the 2013 Cup is awarded but carry them through the entire 2013 calendar year or even the 2013-2014 season. If the league really wants to “make good” for what they took away from fans they need more than just reward us for merely participating in this year’s shortened season’s revenues.
Give Something Back
In everyone‘s minds right now the NHL is about money because that’s what the CBA coverage was all about. That image needs to be scrubbed away ASAP.
Start or work with a charity that handles kids with sports related concussions. Since head trauma is such a big deal in the league use that as a jumping point to give something back. Most of the pre-lock out focus was on controversial elements like changing or enforcing differently hitting, fighting and other rules, on coverage of player injury and related deaths, etc. There was little positive coming from the league or the players in regards to the situation. It isn’t just in hockey either, as both the NFL and MLB are grappling with their own similar problems. The NFL Charity committee routinely offers concussion research grants, the NHL can and should take that concept further.
Use this opportunity to put forth something good both on this matter and for the league’s image itself. Put the focus on the future of hockey by helping with research and maybe even moreso care for young players and providing prevention assistance (lessons, equipment, etc) to be at the forefront of anti-concussion action and take the emphasis of the league off of being a bunch of money hungry grubbers. Make it about hockey helping hockey.
Designing the framework of the charity is probably another post in-and-of itself but the league should use this opportunity as a launching point for changing its image. However, as part of the launch the league could also take a PR angle in inviting the kids who recently suffered hockey head trauma and their families to games and other events for free. Not just a few total, but let’s say one pair for every game: if it’s the proposed 48 game per team season, that’s 15 hosting teams or 720 total regular season games, 4 tickets per works out to 2880 with an average ticket price of say $75 that’s $216,000. Hardly expensive in the grander scheme. If the league angled with the teams, the individual franchises could foot the bill for the tickets and game-day experience (food vouchers, parking, merch, etc) and instead the league then donates to each family a matching amount to help with the child’s medical bills, rehabilitation or other health related necessity. Sure, it’s quaint and maybe a little contrived but it’s a start and it’s the kind of relatively inexpensive program that can be expanded beyond this season and to the minor leagues that will also help bring to the attention how many people are afflicted by sports related concussions and possible help drive change.
Stop making the game a joke. We know nothing will occur for this shortened season, and you know what, that’s fine. But lets have a serious, effective conversation with the real fans about what they want out of hockey and work towards that. The number of hokey rules for hockey that have been proposed and worse implemented over the years in order to draw in more casual fans that never seem to come in the droves predicted need to take a back seat to the overall health of the sport.
We all know that enforcement needs to occur better and that’s why the “Big Wheel of Fun” was replaced by the slightly more tolerable “Shanaban.” Want to make fans happier in this shortened season for real? Reduce the number of poorly called penalties and tighten up the league office officiating even more while increasing even further the level of transparency when infractions occur. Every call is going to be magnified in a shortened season and no one wants a stupid mistake by the league to cost their team so begin immediately by working toward mitigating that possibility.
Then, make a really conscious effort going into the off-season to really address the problems identified in how the game is handled. Fine, we’ve come to terms with the shoot out, but the number of times games ended with one is starting to be disheartening and unless something is done to mitigate shoot out wins (think Kovy for the Devils single handedly putting them in the playoffs last season with his shootout win record) versus regulation wins it’s going to only further devalue the sport. As a matter of fact, address the loser point in general before it becomes a real problem (think the Panther’s having fewer wins in the South East than Washington and still taking the division last season). Ok, and while we’re at it, lets make sure the whole replay problem is addressed too. Generally, it’s not been too bad but let’s not work under the fallacy it’s been perfect.
And, of course, there’s always the fan complaints about things like diving, the trapezoid, head shots calls, etc. that you can also begin to review. The rules committee always has their hands full but rarely does it seem that the general hockey populous participates in the matter. Perhaps there’s some way for the committee and the fans to come together in a semi-meaningful way that brings forth the concerns of fans in how they perceive the sport. Sure, not all of the suggestions will be employable but at least it will “feel” like the league isn’t intentionally trying to screw the die-hards who supported hockey through each of the last work stoppages and need to be reminded why they’re still watching.
Oh, and while we’re at it, make fixing the alignment issue a priority where you don’t come up with some half-assed version of it like you tried to foist on us last year. Might not hurt to address with some real answers how you’ll handle Phoenix as a franchise too since it’s insulting how quick Atlanta became Edmonton while the Coyotes whither in the desert.
Engaging the individual teams
Individual teams have their own responsibilities to their own markets but the league should really push each time to think progressively about how it will respond to the local base. There cannot be a on size fits all response by teams as there’s certainly a difference being the Montreal Canadians or New York Rangers who have no problem selling out most nights compared to the Columbus Blue Jackets or Phoenix Coyotes that were already struggling before the lockout to fully capitalize on their base night to night.
Whatever each team does, it needs to be much more than what many of them already have done and needs to far exceed just painting thanks on the ice as was done last time around. The league can and should mandate each team release some form of a templated statement not just welcoming fans back but apologizing to fans, local merchants and every one else negatively affected by the lockout. Own up and take responsibility in a humble fashion and then as part of this unified, league wide reckoning each team can begin to unveil how they will earn back fan respect through individualized special promotions.
Whatever is free (or discounted) should have meaning. It shouldn’t just be free-for-the-sake-of-free. A free beer and hot dog is nice, for sure. However is a meal voucher alone probably enough to 1) convince someone who would otherwise not go to the game but is still a hockey fan to attend and 2) if they do attend provide an incrementally better experience so they’d be inclined to attend again. The league needs to really focus on helping teams emphasize the experience of being a fan and not just provide free stuff as a hollow thank you to disenfranchised fans. Again, what those thing are probably does vary from market to market so maybe it is actually a combination of ticket pricing and availability, meal and merchandising vouchers, hospitality events, on-ice experiences, expanded local partnership promotions and so on that creates a give-back “experience” for fans from each franchise.
What is done should be more than just in the arena. Each team knows its individual market importance and have certainly felt the weight of the lockout on their stadium employees, local businesses and the like that will need desperately the commitment of the franchise to succeed. This goes beyond just putting fans in arenas, it means bringing back the aura of the hockey experience to the community. Further than simply helping reline the franchise pockets through attendance the teams and the league have to fully engage their entire community to help regrown the health of the sport as a whole in ways that were probably never done before. Have the franchise buy out some local bars and restaurants on a rivalry night and do extended viewing for fans that couldn’t get at the arena for the game complete with special coverage on the broadcast and on the arena jumbotron, giveaways exclusive to the overflow venue, etc. or maybe it’s when the team is out of town offer $1 tickets to watch the game at the arena on the jumbotron to bring additional fans to the arena on days off to support the local community were they will eat and park and purchase merch.
And the NHLPA needs to do it’s part too
This is obvious since the players didn’t get through the contentious lockout unscathed. They need to make themselves as available as possible to their fans and truly make an extra effort to overcome the negative stigma they incurred through the lockout. Each player’s responsibility will be different within the scope of their own stature, their team, etc. but is shouldn’t be beyond any player at this point to make an extra effort to embrace the fans in any way possible. A few players have already begun the healing process, but not nearly enough and not in a NHLPA unified manner that shows they accept responsibility for their actions in hurting the fans and local supporters of their franchises.
So will anyone really care anyhow
Personally, I want to care, I really do. I want to be excited after being treated as a pawn, being taken advantage of and for granted that I can forgive and move on with my fandom but so far there’s been nothing done by the league, by the franchises or by the players in the aftermath of the lockout to convince me I should even remotely pay attention to what happens next forget about be excited for it. And that’s just it, even the announcement of the end of the lockout feels hollow and falls flat in the wake of its effects because the NHL just doesn’t get it sometimes.
I’m waiting… prove me wrong. Prove all the ney-sayers wrong. We know the sport is a business but quit acting like AIG and BofA and a host of other business that routinely act in their own self-interest alone and put your money where your mouth is in terms of “for the love of the sport” when you say it this time.