Hockey fans usually fit into one of two groups:
- Group A fans are generally provincial thinkers who define themselves as traditionalists. They have little regard for any teams or cities outside of the homes of the vaunted Original 6.
- Group B fans love hockey in almost any form and can be downright evangelical in their desire to share their joy with others.
If you're a member of Group B (first off, bless you), you might be looking at the lockouts currently in effect with the NFL and NBA as a huge opportunity for growth for the NHL.
Unfortunately, you're probably wrong.
In a weird twist of cosmic fate, the labor agreements between two major sports leagues and their players expired at roughly the same time and both leagues responded by locking the players out. The NFL has had a lockout in place (off and on, mostly on) since March 12 and the NBA's began on July 1. As a result, both leagues are currently dormant, aside from ongoing legal wrangling, and both face a very real possibility of having truncated (late starting) seasons with the doomsday prospect of no season at all.
Of course, hockey fans of all persuasions are regrettably familiar with these circumstances, having witnessed contentious labor negotiations leading to a lockout that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, what should have been the Tampa Bay Lightning's victory lap. It's tempting to engage in a little shadenfreude and say "now you'll see how it feels, suckers". It's also tempting from an opportunistic viewpoint to think about how the NHL can capitalize on this and bring in thousands of new fans. If both the NFL and NBA are inoperative, when the World Series ends in late October, the NHL will be the only game in town, so to speak. It's not unreasonable to expect suddenly idle football and basketball fans to embrace the NHL with open, eager arms. And once they do so, they'll learn to love the game as much as we do and become hockey fans for life, right?
That's a nice theory, but it's probably not going to happen. Consider...
- The NFL and NBA won't be around but football and basketball will - Fans of their favorite games won't have to go far to find suitable replacements. Unlike college hockey, which gets virtually no national media coverage whatsoever, college football and basketball actually get MORE exposure than their major league counterparts. It's a lot more likely that fans of a particular sport will turn to the college alternatives rather than embrace a whole new game and league with which they're unfamiliar.
- Angry sports fans are angry sports fans - Think about how upset you were when the lockout of ‘04-05 was taking place. They, the league and the players, broke your heart. You probably reached a point where you said, "Screw ‘em; I don't even care if they reach an agreement today and play games tonight." You may have even sworn you'd never watch another game ever again. It's okay, that's an understandable reaction and we're not here to judge. The point is, if you think back, your anger at them, the league and the players, probably wasn't restricted to the boundaries of the NHL. You were fed up with being a pawn in a war between billionaires versus millionaires. At that exact point, how receptive would you have been to suddenly becoming passionate about games played by a different group of owners and players who may eventually break your heart again?
- Media coverage WILL change, but it won't be different - You might be thinking, "What about all that extra time that's suddenly going to be available on the cable sports channels?" Well, they may show more NHL game highlights on their news shows but that's about it. The time they would have spent discussing X's and O's of what happens on the field and courts will be spent reporting on what's taking place in meetings and trials involving the NFL and NBA. Whether they're playing or not, those channels are beholden to those leagues and the fans know it. As far as more NHL games being broadcast? You could see NBC drop in a couple more "game of the week" telecasts, but only if both lockouts keep their leagues dormant through the holidays. Rather, you should just expect to see even more college football and basketball (see above).
- What about sponsors? - Actually, this is one area where the NHL could cash in. For the most part, all the leagues already share slices of the big corporate sponsor pies (automakers, fast food chains, beer and soft drink manufacturers, etc.). If those sponsors get rebates from the NFL and NBA because they're not playing, they may be inclined to spread some of that around a little bit. Or not. A more likely scenario would benefit individual clubs on a local level. In markets where an NHL team has to compete with an NFL and/or a NBA franchise for local sponsors (restaurants, banks, furniture stores, etc.) those NHL teams will suddenly have much easier access to those dollars.
Of course, withreports starting to come in that the NFL will have an agreement within the next two weeks and the NBA being months away before anybody develops a sense of urgency over losing games, this could all be moot by the time pucks drop in October anyway. Still, with all that said, there's no good reason that the NHL couldn't or shouldn't launch some creative marketing campaigns. They could catch some eyes that might not normally be looking. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?