As the NHL lockout extends to day 94, it is becoming more and more clear that the greatest threat to the future of the NHL has nothing to do with hockey related revenues, back diving contracts, length of the CBA, make-whole payments or any of the other hot button issues that have divided the owners and players over the last few months. Indeed, the greatest threat to the future of the NHL is apathy.
I have watched on twitter and Facebook as interest in the lockout has dwindled. In the beginning there were strong feelings about the lockout, lots of really ticked off fans that wanted a deal done and wanted it done pronto. But as the days stretched into weeks and weeks into months, the anger about the lockout on social media has subsided and been replaced by something much, much more dangerous to the future of the NHL: apathy.
I have wondered whether this growing sense of apathy was just my experience. If maybe it was just a product of whom I interact with on social media. Then I started to notice that even Canadian news outlets started talking less about the lockout. I routinely tune into TSN Toronto, TSN Montreal or TSN Winnipeg to get the latest on the lockout. In the last couple of weeks almost all the hockey talk on the TSN stations has been about the World Juniors and almost nothing about the lockout.
Now comes word this morning that Canadians – the base of the NHL – are increasingly less interested in hockey. According to a study by Level5, reported on in the Globe and Mail:
The first surprise researchers found was passion for the national winter sport has slipped. One-third of Canadians polled consider themselves “passionate” about hockey, one-third is neutral on the topic and one-third has no interest at all.
“It surprised us,” Kincaid says. “If we had done this study 10 years ago, 20 years ago, we would have seen half of Canadians or more say they were passionate about the game.”
And the news gets worse:
They found a lot of males have slipped into “neutrality” about the game – are now bored with hockey talk and feel they no longer relate to the game. Football – both CFL and NFL – is on the rise among those fans, who continue to be interested in sports.
“It’s not a sacred relationship with hockey,” says Behzad Ghotb, who led the analysis for Level5.
The study concluded that, “If anyone thinks that the lockout can end and everyone will come back to Happy Valley, it ain’t going to happen.”
Forget the future of hockey in non-traditional markets like Phoenix or Florida or Nashville – we are talking about a threat to the very foundation of hockey.
The assumption has always been that die-hard hockey fans would come back to the NHL whenever this lockout ends. It’s been the foundational assumption of both the players and the owners. It is the assumption that has dictated both sides strategy of dragging this out until the 11th hour. And now we learn that this assumption may be faulty.
I wrote recently that I strongly believe that a deal will get done and we will get NHL hockey this season. I still believe that today. What I am no longer sure of, is what long term damage has been done to the sport as a result of this work stoppage.
Hockey has struggled to break out of being a niche and regional sport for decades. The NHL has tried desperately to grow the sport and expand its fan base. Now in the span of just 94 days Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr may not have just jeopardized the gains the sport has made in the last decade, they may have done long-term damage to its most loyal fans.
If the NHL and NHLPA don’t get a deal done soon, get back on the ice and find ways to repair damaged relationships with their fan base, their may be a time when the NHL will be lucky to be considered a niche or regional sport.