By Matt Ventresca
When the big news broke over the weekend, media and sport organizations across North America began mobilizing their teams of journalists, marketers and social media gurus with a “War is Over”-type fervour. The company line, uttered in places as far reaching as Toronto, Detroit and Carolina, was that Sunday was a “great day for hockey.” Canadian cable sports networks provided seemingly around-the-clock coverage of the announcement, balancing negotiation figures and summaries with in-depth season previews and trade speculation (Have you heard? Apparently some Luongo guy might change teams). Behind the scenes, sponsors that attempted to capitalize on lockout-related angst throughout the coverage of the World Junior tournament are undoubtedly working tirelessly to prep a “hockey’s back!” campaign that will fall somewhere short of hypocritical.
But what struck me about much of the coverage of the apparent end to the lockout (don’t forget about that pesky ratification vote!) was the inclusion of countless sound bites from disgruntled fans vowing to boycott the NHL, at least temporarily. The burning question on the lips of seemingly every news anchor, reporter and analyst was: How can the NHL win back its fans? And in the days following the “Game On” announcement, we have been offered plenty of answers.
The Associated Press suggested reduced ticket prices, more special promotions, giveaways and autograph signings among other “fan friendly incentives.” Luke Fox over at Sportsnet wonders if a free ticket to your favourite team’s first home game or discounted TV packages might warm up the league’s frigid fan base. Even the jokesters from Sports Pickle recommended a few (ironic) strategies that the NHL might want to consider.
But I want to turn this question upside down. Instead of only asking what the NHL has to do to rekindle good will amongst its supporters, should the accompanying question be: what can fans do to resist?
I (shockingly) agree with Toronto Star columnist Rosie Dimanno’s assertion that a lot of this tough talk about protesting, boycotting and ignoring the NHL will fizzle when the season kicks into high gear (judging by the amount of chatter concerning the sudden and surprising dismissal of Brian Burke, it may not even take that long). But nevertheless many of us face a serious dilemma. We are fans of the sport and we enjoy watching the game played at its highest level – if we follow the assumption that the NHL is just that. But some of us refuse to let the second NHL work stoppage in a decade pass without consequences for the billionaire businessmen (yes, they are still all men) who have controlling interest in hockey’s most high profile league. You might be critical of the NHL’s broader labour practices or be one of the voices demanding that the league cease its incessant promotion of a violent, hyper-masculine style of play (and understand the relationship between the two). But you’re also excited that your favourite NHL teams and stars will be returning to the ice after this hiatus, bringing back the familiar sights, sounds and rituals that have become part of your winter routine. How do we make sense of all this? What can we do?
This dilemma reminds of the cognitive dissonance I experienced when similar scenarios arose in the past. Like when I posted an article in support of the Occupy movement only to have the next click of my mouse take me to another website so I can check up on my fantasy football team. Or when I participated in a Casserole march in solidarity with the Quebec student movement only to retire to a nearby pub, have a pint and gleefully watch the Blue Jays. It didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem right to shift so easily from questioning the power of some behemoth institutions to spiritedly supporting another. This time around, I certainly feel it’s important to send a message that somehow disrupts the “back to business as usual” ethos being trumpeted by NHL players, coaches and league executives. But is it dishonest to drag my dusty Leafs jersey out of hiding, start watching games when the season commences and sustain the industry that has been so deceitful and disloyal to its supporters (and employees) the last five months? What kind of political statement is that?
I’m really starting to think there is no simple answer to any of these questions. Eric Duhatschek of the Globe & Mail suggests that the best way for fans to display their discontent would be by refusing to watch television broadcasts of NHL games. This, so the theory goes, would make the league’s TV rights a less valuable asset when Bettman & Co. have to renegotiate their broadcast deals in the coming years costing the NHL big bucks. The Just Drop It campaign claims to have convinced thousands of NHL fans to boycott the first 10 games of the abbreviated season. The group’s founder, Steve Chase, has also stated that he hopes to organize a flash mob at the first home game for every NHL team. Chase’s plan is to have fans stand up en masse at the 10 minute mark of the second period and turn their back to the play for two minutes (his own version of a “two minute penalty,” I suppose). Is such a symbolic gesture enough to make it clear to the league that these practices will not be tolerated? Or are financial repercussions the best way to send a powerful message? How long of a boycott is long enough? Again, I think these questions are more complicated than they seem.
One final point: When the lockout was in its infancy, one of the issues that was frequently brought to light was the impact the work stoppage would have on other employees of the NHL and those who work in spinoff industries that rely on pro hockey to stay afloat. Amongst all the recent talk of boycotts and retribution, however, the stories of these types of workers have been largely absent from the discussion. Even after recognizing that my past employment in the industry translates into a disproportionate number of friends and acquaintances in hockey-related professions, it was still shocking how my social media feeds were teeming with folks enthusiastically applauding the end of the lockout because it meant they could finally go back to work. We would like to believe that a major hit to the NHL’s pocketbook would mean a reduction in salaries for the millionaire players (two birds with one stone, right?). But it’s more likely that a reduction in NHL revenue would be more concerning to the front-line workers who were most affected by the lockout to begin with.
I don’t mean to say that every NHL fan should feel compelled to engage in an act of resistance or that these undertakings require any sort of political undertone. Most of us will find ourselves somewhere in between avoiding the league altogether and enthusiastically going back like the lockout never happened. My point is that where we end up on that spectrum is rather complicated and our decisions in the next 10 days or so should not be taken lightly. Is it possible to show our displeasure, but still enjoy the league’s return? I hope so – starting on January 19th, that’s the happy medium I’ll be shooting for.