By Sunil Agnihotri
To say the past four months of negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA has been an embarrassment is a major understatement. It’s been difficult for hockey fans to watch the game being dragged through the mud as both the NHL owners and the NHLPA stand at a stalemate, waiting for the right deal to suddenly appear. How any professional sports league can allow this to happen is mind-boggling, as one would think that the fans and the long-term success of the league would motivate both parties to find a solution. The labor negotiations have revealed the flawed business model of the NHL, yet fans remain optimistic and hopeful the season can be salvaged.
The thing that doesn’t make sense to me, is how oblivious the NHL and the NHLPA are to their fans activity during the lockout. Throughout the labor negotiations, fans have been diminished to nothing more than a revenue source, whose financial contributions to the game are being fought over by the owners and the players.
Fans have quickly moved their attention to other professional hockey leagues, including the American Hockey League (NHL’s development league) and the Kontinental Hockey League (based in Russia), as well as the Elitserien (Sweden), Österreichische Eishockey-Liga (Austria) and the Czech Extraliga (Czech Republic). These leagues have drawn a significant number of fans, mainly because the majority of NHL players have signed contracts with clubs in these leagues. The rules might be a little different and the overall production quality might not be at the NHL level, but it’s still professional hockey.
It’s become very easy to follow these other hockey leagues as the majority of games, stats and news articles are readily available online. Web technology, including online applications, social media and analytic tools are free to access and easy to use for fans to remain engaged to the game. For example, European games are also available to watch or listen to online. News articles and websites covering any of the European leagues, which may be written in foreign languages, can be translated to English or French using Google Translate. Statistics from KHL games are available in real time online, and can also be tracked using smartphone applications. The current web technology was not available around 2004-2005, so fan activity was significantly different during the last NHL lockout.
Hockey bloggers have also begun providing in-depth coverage of other leagues, including pre and post game analysis. There have also been numerous sites providing data analysis of European league games, which were difficult to find prior to the NHL lockout. Other bloggers have focused solely on providing highlights of games on their sites, which in the past were rarely seen. And even with no NHL hockey being played, bloggers are using their time to analyze past player and team performance, potential free agent signings and team strategies for next year and fantasy league projections if the lockout ends. What has been made clear during this lockout is that a single second of NHL hockey doesn’t need to be played for fans to remain engaged with the game of hockey.
What should concern the NHL and NHLPA is that this continued activity during the lockout has drawn fans closer to other leagues and players. By not only following these other leagues, but also being active participants creating and sharing content, fans have learned about the history of European hockey, the different coaching strategies and the different prospects, among other things. When the NHL lockout ends, you can expect these fans to flock back in full force, but they’ll be keeping an eye on the other leagues they were committed to. Fans’ analysis of NHL hockey will also be significantly impacted by what they experience following other leagues during the lockout, including what strategies work and what players would look good in the NHL. What the NHL should also be wary of is the fact that fans who did follow other leagues will share content with others to promote these smaller leagues.
The NHL and NHLPA have successfully taken the game away from its fans. But they haven’t taken away the fans ability and desire to create and share new hockey related content. In fact, I would argue that fan activity has actually increased during the lockout as speculation of the NHL’s future and the tracking of other leagues has grown significantly.