The NHL lockout, which began Sunday when players across the league were not allowed into team facilities, shows no signs of being reconciled.
No face-to-face discussions have yet been scheduled between the owners and the NHL Players’ Association and a few stars, most notably Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin, have already penned deals with Russian league teams.
Their actions, as well as the $600 million per year difference between the players’ and owners’ proposals, illustrate clearly that the NHL lockout will not be easily resolved, which could prove disastrous for a sport crippled by a similar debacle just eight years ago.
After what it went through after the lost season of 2004-2005, the NHL cannot afford this lockout. Not the players, not the owners, not the loyal fans. The league has experienced a whirlwind decade and is in desperate need of some certainty.
After drawing consistent popularity through the early 2000’s, in 2004-2005 the NHL became the first major professional sports league in history to lose an entire season due to a labor dispute. The effects of the lockout were twofold. For one, the 2005-2006 season tallied the highest season attendance in the league’s history. The loyal fan bases of the individual teams were apparently starved for hockey and went out in masses to support their teams.
But the second effect was a large dip in television ratings. While absence made the heart grow fonder for the die-hard hockey fans, the national audience lost its enthusiasm for the sport during the year-long hiatus, which was evidenced by nearly a 10 percent dip in Stanley Cup viewership from 2004 to 2006.
But the NHL battled back and slowly regained its footing in national support over the next couple years.
And then came the biggest boom in the sport’s recent history when the Canucks’ hometown of Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The combination of an Olympic host on NHL soil and the thrilling gold medal game that saw the Canadian team best the Americans in overtime provided a renaissance of professional hockey support in the two nations. The 2010 Stanley Cup’s rating surpassed those of the 2009 Stanley Cup by 38 percent and the sixth game of the series was the most-watched NHL game in history.
Now, the latest NHL lockout is threatening all of this progress.
Although ticket sales represent a large portion of the revenue for the NHL, merchandise sales, television contracts and advertising also rake in big money. Based on the results of the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, the NHL may feel no impact on ticket revenue.
But it was readily apparent in 2005-2006 that the national audience lost interest. And national interest in the league is crucial for the NHL in its constant fight to stay competitive with the NBA and ahead of the ever-expanding MLS. For it is national attention that moves a professional league from a collection of local hubs of fans to the prestige and paychecks of a national pastime.
With the October 11th season-openers looming, there is too little time for one to realistically expect a full 2012-2013 NHL season. But the players’ association and owners will likely eventually reach an agreement to salvage a shortened one.
They have been down this road before and know they cannot afford to lose a second season in eight years. Ticket sales will take a small hit due to the decreased number of games, but the agreement’s real importance will be in preserving the league’s relevance in the national sports world.