NHL Lockout: Are NHL Fans the Most Dedicated in Sports or Just Suckers?

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 03:  A Pittsburgh Penguins fan expresses himself during the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves on October 3, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Fans always have complaints during any kind of labor problem in sports.

"It's just a dispute between the billionaires and the millionaires. Nobody cares about the fans." This is a typical lament heard on sports radio no matter the sport or who is involved in the dispute.

When push comes to shove, there's a feeling that management is in the business for itself, the players are out to see how much money they can make and there are no concerns for the paying customer.

Statements to the contrary are just designed to keep the paying customers in place and prevent them from defecting for another sport or another off-work avocation.

The NHL lockout began Sept. 15, and it seems that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has no doubt that the sport's fans will come back whenever NHL hockey returns in earnest.

Bettman expressed his confidence that hockey fans would return to the league's arenas no matter how long a work stoppage lasts. "We recovered well last time because we have the world's greatest fans," he said, per The News & Observer.

In addition to pandering, Bettman can look back at how his sport disappeared from the sports landscape for a full year when the 2004-05 season was lost to a work stoppage.

No other major North American sports league had ever canceled a full season prior to that event, and no sports league has followed in the NHL's footsteps.

Yet when the league returned in full for the 2005-06 season, fans returned to the sport.

Revenues for the NHL were soon higher than they had ever been, and arenas were full of passionate, screaming and intensely loyal fans.

Are hockey fans blindly loyal to the sport they love? Are they more passionate than the fanbases of the NFL, MLB and NBA, or are they merely addicted to NHL hockey?

If the latter is the case, Bettman is the street dealer who is withholding the product from his desperate customers.

While the fans' lament of "nobody caring about them" sounds naive and cliched, it may have more meaning with NHL fans than those of any other sport.

Owners are locking out players. They wouldn't endeavor such a practice unless it was bringing them some benefit.

The players will soon be hurting because they will be losing regular-season salary. However, a percentage of players have decent alternatives to the NHL. Many players find work overseas in leagues like the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and other European leagues that are willing to employ players on a temporary basis until the NHL lockout is over.

Players may not make the same kind of salaries they do in the NHL, but they will get paid for playing hockey. That's not so bad.

NHL fans have no suitable alternative. Minor league hockey is not a decent substitute, and ESPN's decision to offer KHL hockey is laughable.

Fans have no loyalty to the KHL, and there will be little interest outside of mere curiosity when it comes to seeing well-known players in strange uniforms.

Hockey fans are incredibly dedicated and passionate. But is there any tangible evidence to suggest they are more loyal than NFL, NBA and MLB fans? No.

A 2010 survey by marketing metric firm Brand Keys Inc. reported that NHL fans were behind the other sports in terms of loyalty. The Business of Sports published the Brand Keys survey that said NFL and MLB fans were the most loyal, followed by NBA and then NHL fans.

The perception that hockey fans are the most loyal may not be true at all.

Bettman and the NHL owners may be miscalculating as they lock the players out of NHL arenas.

If they are wrong in their belief that hockey fans will return, they will pay a very big price.