The NHL cannot afford to have another lockout or the sport's immense growth in the United States over the past few seasons would be destroyed.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed on Thursday that the owners will lock out the players if a new CBA isn't reached by the time the current one expires on September 15.
Bettman: "We reiterated to the union that the owners will not play another year under the current agreement." PA told same for past year.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) August 9, 2012
Since the players and the owners have moved at such a slow pace throughout this entire process, there is little reason to believe a lockout won't happen.
Fans in the United States came back to the sport after lockouts affected the 1994-95 and 2004-05 seasons, but a third one might be too much for the fans to take. The owners cannot rely on fans, especially the casual fans that aren't die-hard hockey people, to come back if more games are missed.
Let's look at why another lockout would put the NHL on life support in the United States
Casual fans are extremely critical to the growth of any sport, but particularly the NHL since it doesn't have the same national recognition in the United States that the NBA, NFL and MLB enjoy.
Since the last two Stanley Cup playoffs have been very exciting, many people who normally weren't too interested in hockey are starting to become interested in the sport and their local teams. The owners need to realize that another lockout could result in a loss of a lot of casual fans, who are important to the financial health of their teams.
The die-hard fans will always come back, regardless of how mad they may get during a lockout, but the owners cannot assume that the casual fans will return.
The league has done a great job gaining more casual fans with their television deal with NBC, the awesome Winter Classic event (and its HBO 24/7 series), and other marketing tools.
The league's growth since the last lockout in 2005 has been impressive, and for it to continue, the league cannot endure another lockout and test the patience of the casual fans, many of whom will have no problem forgetting about the NHL.
Television Deal and Ratings
One of the best parts about the NHL in the post-lockout era is the league's television deal with NBC, which will last into the next decade after the two sides agreed to a 10-year, $2 billion deal last year.
NBC and the NBC Sports Network give hockey fans in America the opportunity to see out-of-market teams and star players they used to just watch when their hometown team played them. NBC Sports has done a great job of having prime time NHL games on multiple nights during the regular season, in addition to televising every playoff game.
This kind of television exposure has been instrumental in the league's growth since the last lockout, and there's no reason to believe that NBC's coverage won't improve throughout the length of its new deal with the NHL.
Now that the league is finally on cable and is taking steps to alert fans that they can watch good hockey multiple nights each week, it would be awful for the league to have a lockout and hurt this growth. So many more people know of and watch the NBC Sports Network right now compared to just a few years ago when the channel was named Versus and a lot of people didn't even have it included in their cable package.
The league's ratings, especially in the playoffs, were phenomenal last season. Take a look at some notable TV stats from an NBC press release for the first round of the 2012 NHL playoffs (via TV by the Numbers)
- Averaged 929,000 viewers across NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC, making them the most-watched first round on record (cable data not available prior to 1994).
- Averaged 744,000 viewers on NBC Sports Network, making them the most-watched in NBC Sports Network history (formerly VERSUS), up 16 percent from last year (642,000) and the highest on a cable channel in 11 years (ESPN, 745,000 in 2001).
- Averaged 2.57 million viewers on NBC for six broadcasts, up 39 percent compared to last year (1.85 million, four games) and making them the most-watched on a broadcast network in 14 years, since Fox averaged 2.76 million viewers in 1998 (two games).
- Reached 30.9 million total viewers across NBC, NBC Sports Network and CNBC (excluding last night’s two Game 7s), up 29 percent vs. last year (23.9 million).
These are encouraging numbers for the NHL, and with so many big market teams having success (more on that below), these records could be broken multiple times in the near future.
There is nothing better than exciting hockey, especially in the playoffs, so for the league to please and earn more American viewers, it cannot afford to have a lockout and not be on television.
Large Market Success, Non-Traditional Market Growth
The NHL currently has many big market teams having success, and if these teams missed games or an entire season due to a lockout, the fans might never forgive the league.
For example, the New York Rangers recently acquired superstar winger Rick Nash, a move that has Blueshirts fans expecting a Stanley Cup run next season. The Rangers play in the largest TV market in the league, but they are not the only other large market in America that has seen hockey success over the last few seasons.
Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and San Jose are all large markets and have teams that will be contenders for the Stanley Cup next season.
Big markets doing well is always good for the league because it allows casual fans to be exposed to the sport and it helps ratings tremendously. Missing games or an entire season, and preventing several large market contenders from giving fans great hockey would significantly hurt the sport in the United States.
The other half of this is that many small markets in areas of the United States that Bettman has tried to grow the sport in are actually starting to see great improvement in on-ice performance.
The Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers both have talented young players and appear to be contenders this season and into the future. The league-owned Phoenix Coyotes, despite their financial turmoil, enjoyed their most successful playoff run last year and gave Arizona hockey fans many reasons to support the team moving forward.
Having a work stoppage, which would in turn halt the growth of these important non-traditional markets, could be catastrophic for the league's growth in the Southern part of the United States.
The Winter Classic was a genius idea, and no other regular season event in any other North American sports league can compare.
No Canadian team has participated in the Winter Classic since it started in 2008. However, the Toronto Maple Leafs are scheduled to be the first team from Canada to play in the Winter Classic in a matchup with the Detroit Red Wings scheduled for January 1, 2013 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
The Winter Classic is a great game from a marketing perspective because of its uniqueness and casual fans can be brought to the sport by it. In addition to the Winter Classic game, HBO's 24/7 series that follows the two teams leading up to their showdown outdoors is one of the highlights of each season.
The 24/7 series gives fans a rare up-close look at the players and coaches they support, as well as some great entertainment and comedy. Many fans don't want there to be a lockout just so they can enjoy the Winter Classic and not miss any 24/7 episodes, which shows you how much the fans enjoy this event.
What Can We Expect?
Unless the players and owners pick up the pace and make significant progress constructing a new CBA over the next month, a lockout will happen.
The players have the better situation right now because they are signing huge contracts and currently receive 57 percent of the revenue pie. They won't give up this advantage easily, and when you combine that with many greedy owners determined to get what they think is a "fair split," you have a recipe for another lockout.
In the end, the players and owners will likely forget about the fans because they think the supporters will always come back. Although, a third lockout in less than 20 years might be enough to anger even the most loyal NHL fans and cause them to give up on the league.
This time the owners really need to worry about the fans, because if they don't come back in the great numbers seen after the previous lockout, the sport could suffer dramatically, especially in the United States.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL lead blogger at Bleacher Report. He was also the organization's on-site reporter for the 2011 Stanley Cup Final in Boston. Follow him on Twitter.