At midnight Sunday morning, the seemingly inevitable NHL lockout will officially be underway, and the cancellation of events, preseason games and regular season games will begin for the third time under Commissioner Gary Bettman’s watch.
The looming lockout has obviously created concerns for the sport, which took a major hit due to the loss of the entire 2004-05 season. Nationally broadcast games were relegated to the Outdoor Life Network and television viewership dropped dramatically after the fact. AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Research, described the lockout impact to Sporting News.
“Our research after the last lockout (2004-05) showed the passionate fans quickly returned to the arena but a long lag time for casual fans to return to attending games and watching on TV. Given that TV ratings are one of the greatest challenges for the NHL, this is not good.”
But a lockout beginning Saturday does not immediately and automatically imply that an entire season will be lost.
Certainly no hockey fan would be happy about spending the month of October without being able to go to the arena and watch the team live, or tune in on television a few times per week. However, the overall impact of October and early November games being cancelled is relatively limited.
The NBA lost two months of its 2011-12 season last year due to a very similar labor dispute. The lockout-shortened season had a limited impact on the success of the sport, and in fact the Christmas Day season premier drew impressive ratings, according to NBA.com.
The NBA Finals also thrived despite the early-season turmoil, as the Heat-Thunder showdown attracted record-breaking television viewership.
At what point would you start to worry about the future of the NHL?
The fact is that both hockey and basketball have seasons that may be the perfect length for the die-hard fan, but are simply too long for casual fans. While head coaches push the mantra that “every game counts,” a number of potential fans simply do not pay close attention to these sports early in the season.
After all, the NFL season is in full swing when hockey begins, and the baseball playoffs are underway when the first puck drops.
The telling date for the NHL may be Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when NBC is slated to broadcast its first game of the year (before that day, the NBC Sports Network handles all the nationally broadcast games). The significance of the Black Friday “deadline” is explored in full by Bleacher Report’s Nicholas Goss here.
At this point, while no regular season games have officially been cancelled, it seems that a regular season 82 games in length is highly unlikely. Certain players may see the shortened season as a blessing in disguise, particularly those recovering from injury and those who are older.
A season of 50-65 games would likely keep the NHL growing, as long as the schedule was adjusted to stay heavy on rivalry games and keep the most important teams in the media spotlight.
While a shortened season would likely affect which teams make the playoffs, it will have little effect on the impact of the playoffs themselves. Playoff hockey games sell themselves; they are unequivocally the most exciting in all of professional sports.
No cancellation of games is good for the sport, but the major harm that can be done in terms of television viewership, sponsorship and overall perception of the sport will not be felt if the lockout is short and the CBA becomes a non-issue sooner rather than later.
Losing an entire season, and losing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, would be suicide for hockey. Luckily, that is still a long way off.
Dan Kelley has been a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist since 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @dxkelley