Hockey Is Back, And All Is Good. Or Is It?

Hockey is back. The game that we all love was shelved while owners and players quarreled over revenue sharing, division of revenues, and various other issues. While the owners and players postured and positioned their arguments to gain their objectives, fans were left in the lurch waiting to see if a season would happen.

And now that an abbreviated season has been salvaged, the League, owners, and players have begun the process of mending fences and saying “We’re sorry”. Here is a copy of a letter from the League that will appear in all local NHL markets in their major newspaper,

Dear fans:

As your teams prepare for the opening face-off of the 2012-13 season, we thank you for your patience and we apologize to you for the time we missed. From today forward, we will do everything we can to make this season worth the wait.

We are committed to earning back your trust and support the same way it’s earned on the ice: with hard work and unwavering dedication. Your cheers drive us forward, and we’re committed to making you proud to be a fan – by delivering a game with the action, the skill and the intensity you deserve.

Like you, we’ve missed NHL hockey. We’ve missed the clutch goals, the big hits, the electrifying saves. We’ve missed the flash of red light, the sound of the siren and the way the building shakes when the home team scores.

It’s time to focus on the best athletes in the world, on the enduring greatness of the game and – above all – on the connection that binds fans, players and families everywhere. NHL hockey is the best in the world. The future is incredibly bright. So let’s drop the puck and marvel at all the remarkable things the players do with it.

With respect and appreciation,

The National Hockey League.

P.S. We hope you’ll get in on the action. And again, thank you.

Fans in most NHL markets have enthusiastically welcomed the return of hockey. Things are returning to normal and all is right with the individual fans and sponsors of the League.

Or is it?

Brian Cooper, President and CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group, a firm that handles significant NHL sponsors, said, “My clients are beyond frustration with what has happened. The public has soured on them. Better to wait until the brand is forgiven. By then, it’s probably next summer at the earliest before people will consider the NHL brand again.”

According to Cooper, corporate clients want three things: consistency, accessibility, and an emotional attachment to product. Cooper says all three have been shattered since the lockout began.

Cooper speaks from the perspective of the national sponsors for the League. There is no doubt that each local NHL market will rebound at varying degrees depending on the relationship the club has with its local sponsors. For the Predators, their efforts at engaging the local sponsors and being transparent with them will be a strong positive. The exceptional effort to develop local sponsors and engage them in various promotions such as “Preds Pride” has kept the sponsors involved and the lines of communication open.

The fact remains that whether in a local market or nationally, sponsors have to sell their product. Sponsors that had committed dollars to hockey had to come up with other ways to promote their product. While hockey fans are passionate and develop a strong emotional attachment to their team and the companies that support that team, accessibility was short circuited because of the lockout, and consistency was badly damaged by the work stoppage. The money question for the League and for the individual teams is can this relationship with their sponsors be repaired?

Only time will provide the answer to that question.

As far as the individual fans, they have already shown they are ready for hockey to be back.

On several occasions during the lockout and the negotiations, it was stated by League officials and the Players Association that the game has the greatest fans and that they will be back once the season resumed.

That assertion will most likely be proven true.

Yet that attitude is troubling in this respect: the owners and the players can fight over the particulars of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and take the game away and leave the fans caught in the middle. The attitude by both sides that the game is so great, so special, takes for granted the fan that spends their hard earned dollars to go to the game. “The fans will come back, no matter how much crap we dish out, because they love the game and their team” is a dangerous way to operate the League.

When the current CBA expires in ten years, or the opt occurs in eight years, will we as fans face this same scenario? That question is far from unrealistic given the attitudes and actions of the owners and the response of the players.

The reality of the NHL is that as a League, there is more interest by the owners in the success of individual teams than the League as a whole. The contentious fight among the owners about revenue sharing is proof of that fact. Until that attitude changes and the good of the League as whole becomes the driving dynamic, the potential for future lockouts remains a real possibility.

If that happens, it leaves sponsors and fans once again without the game they love and to which they have made a significant financial commitment. How long will that commitment last if there is another work stoppage?

And risking that commitment from sponsors and fans is not good for hockey.

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About the Author: A native Nashvillian that grew up with minor league hockey, I'm now a devoted Predators fan and NHL follower. I have had the privilege of allowing my children to grow up watching the Predators and seeing the joy on their face when they are at a game. By day, I am a partner in an independent investment management company in the Nashville area. I played collegiate football and graduated from the University of South Carolina and graduated from the LSU graduate School of Banking. So yes, there are real true southern hockey fans in these non-traditional markets.

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