Where Are The Fans Left After the NHL Lockout?

Leigh Ramsden January 9, 2013 5
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Yesterday, we posted a postmortem on the NHL lockout, and took a look at the financial picture of the league and what “problems” the NHL ownership may have been trying to fix.  We also speculated as to the overriding motivations behind the league’s actions.  It wasn’t really about the players, it was about making the “loser” teams more competitive.  And it was very clear that fans in the league’s Canadian cities (and well established US markets) are really paying the freight, and even more insulting is the tacit assumption that these fans WILL come back, not matter what the league does to them.

Today, I want to explore where this leaves you – the paying fan of the NHL.

WHERE ARE THE FANS LEFT?

Clearly, as was discussed yesterday, the fans were not a consideration in this lockout.  Especially those fans north of the 49th, who appear to provide the league a disproportionate amount of revenue and profit.  I guess the questions now are whether or the not fans should do anything to express their displeasure, and if so, what exactly can be done?

Speaking for myself, I feel like I’d like to take some sort of “action”.  If all fans of the NHL just continue on like nothing has happened, then no messages will be sent to the NHL.  They will have been correct in their assessment that the “fans will always come back”, just like they did after the last two lockouts.  When the fans come back, so do the revenues, and everyone continues on their merry way.

Personally, I feel much different this time around.  This was the first time I’ve ever been pro-player in a sports labour dispute, and I pin this entire thing on the NHL and its arrogant, greedy ownership.  And there’s a part of me that wants my “pound of flesh”.  I don’t want to merely trot happily back to Rogers Arena and cheer on the team – even though, I still support them.  It’s easy to see how this is a very conflicting issue for many fans.

I’ve seen this described in the media as though the fans have a “chip on their shoulder”, and that is exactly how I feel.  I don’t want to go back and spend money, but I feel like I have to if I ever want to in the future (Vancouver has a scarcity of tickets).

Regardless, I think it’s important for me, personally, to take some sort of stand.  A lot of this comes down to the fact that I just don’t buy into the vision that the NHL head office is trying to achieve – the competitive league, full of parity, with every team being equal.  In that case, whether or not a team wins is less about talent, coaching, and teamwork, and more about random chance.

HOW DO FANS PROVIDE DOLLARS TO THE NHL?

First off, let’s define a paying fan.  A paying fan doesn’t necessarily buy game tickets.  There are a great many number of ways that someone contributes to the coffers of the NHL, whether it be through attendance at games or otherwise.  The reality is that most fans don’t attend games across the country – for one, not all the fans are located in the cities in which the teams play.  Frankly, given that a large percentage of season tickets are held by corporations for client or employee entertainment, even many of the people who attend the games live aren’t actually fans.

Regardless of game attendance, there are a great many number of ways that fans interact with the NHL and provide it dollars.  Most significantly, fans watch games on TV – broadcasters pay for the rights, and charge advertisers for commercials during the games.  Presumably, some viewers then spend money with the companies that are doing the advertising.  This is, of course, a very indirect way for money to flow from a fan to the NHL, but nonetheless, it’s a large piece of the revenue pie for the NHL.

Of course there are many other far more direct methods, most obviously including the purchase of NHL team merchandise or buying other merchandise directly from one of the league’s teams.

My point is, however, that all fans, regardless of whether or not they are attending games, are contributing to overall NHL revenues.

WHAT CAN A FAN DO WITH REGARD TO TICKET PURCHASES?

As a ticket-buying fan, I’d love to sit here and say “I’m so mad, I’m going to stop buying tickets.”  The reality however, in this market, is that if I do so, I will lose my ticketholder standing and maybe never get it back again (at last count, there was a 3 year waiting list for tickets).  I believe this situation is much worse in Toronto, Winnipeg sold out their inventory for the first three years of their existence, and I don’t believe it’s easy to get tickets in the remaining Canadian markets either.

I can’t do that – unfortunately, I feel I have to continue to buy tickets.  I’ve seen some discussion by people calling for people to no longer buy tickets – that’s just unrealistic.  At the end of the day, hockey fans want to see the top-level of hockey.

On the subject of tickets, and ticket prices:  ticket prices are not a function of the underlying costs of the business – they are only a function of supply and demand within any given market.  If the salary cap was reduced to $30 million tomorrow, ticket prices would not be slashed in half – there would be no need to do so.  Ticket prices are what they are, like it or not.

The one thing that owners got right in this CBA is to quell a significant expansion of revenue sharing.  As someone who buys tickets, I’m NOT in support of increased revenue-sharing – primarily because those revenues are coming straight out of my pocket!  As we discussed yesterday, this is not a league driven by national TV money – if it was, I’d support more revenue sharing.  However, if I’m spending my money on Canucks tickets, and subjecting myself to incessant Subway ads during local Canucks TV broadcasts, the LAST place I want that money to go is into the coffers of the team’s competitors, so that they can make themselves stronger, sign our free agents, etc. etc.  I’d rather that money stay within the Canucks’ system.

The Canucks are a great corporate citizen with many charitable activities, and while my ticket dollars don’t go directly to those, I’m fully in support of the Aquilinis making a good profit on their enterprise.  They have iced a competitive product for many years and continue to strive toward a championship team.  They have always spent to the cap and done everything they can, almost regardless of cost, to help the team win (sleep doctors, chartered flights, upgraded player facilities, high-end medical treatment, etc.).  For those reasons, I don’t have a problem with them making some money, and at the end of the day, I’m pretty confident our local ownership wasn’t very supportive of the lockout at all – so it seems disingenuous to penalize them.

In the end, I’d rather my money here than go into some horrible market where it will undoubtedly combust.  So in the end, I can continue to justify ticket purchases.

WHAT CAN A FAN DO OTHERWISE?

Unfortunately, I’m left at a bit of a loss when determining what a fan can do.  Financially, I’ve decided to make one small stand:  when attending games, I’m going to vow to NOT purchase any overpriced, $9 beers at the game (or at least as many as I used to).  I think I probably would purchase two of these drinks, minimum, for a game, and depending on what was going on, up to six.  That’s a lot of dough!  So, I’m cutting that out, as much as I can.

Otherwise, frankly, I don’t see a big opportunity to send a financial message.  Of course, I’ll probably lay off the Subway breakfast sandwiches too, but that is such a horribly indirect effect, it’s virtually nonexistent.

I’ve decided, however, that what I really want to do is to continue to try to hold the league to the highest standard of integrity.  I don’t believe the regime currently running the league is honest or trustworthy, and I will continue to attempt to hold them to account by calling out any crap that I see, in this venue and elsewhere. Whether it be the game styles being permitted through officiating, poor decisions on supplemental discipline, a continued lack of action on headshots and dirty play in the league, or whatever the case may be, I am going to figuratively yell, scream, and hold the league to account.

As fans, we hold a huge stake in the future success of this league and this sport.  Especially, Canadian fans.  As was shown yesterday, we pay a huge amount of money into the sport we love.  We provide millions of dollars into the economy.  We have a tradition and history in this game like no other country.  We have a responsibility to the sport to hold these charlatans to account.  And I encourage all my fellow fans to take any action, however small or large, to help achieve this goal.

You, the Canadian hockey fan, have been royally screwed by this lockout.  You’ve been deprived of your passion for four months.  You won’t see decreased prices going forward, and you’re going to be subjected to the same horrible Subway ads that you were before.

Don’t forget that.  And do everything you can to remind the powers that be that you don’t forget it. Because one day, if all fans band together and pull for the same goal, the league will be returned to a set of hands that will nurture the game and restore integrity to the NHL head office.