There comes a time when the loyalty of sports fans gets taken advantage of to the point it is totally justifiable to walk away and never look back.
For fans of the National Hockey League, this frustrating lockout—which has already cost the league the first two weeks of the 2012-13 season—that time has arrived.
While simply missing the first two weeks of this season would ultimately be met with the same shrug the NBA saw when it missed the first 16 games a year ago, the labor dispute here seems headed for the long haul.
Commissioner Gary Bettman is currently presiding over his third lockout since taking over in 1993. He knows the way to defeat the players in labor disputes is to start taking away paychecks, even if that means cancelling a season for the second time in a decade.
Bettman also knows he has a veteran negotiator in Donald Fehr on the opposite side of the table. And, as fans of Major League Baseball would tell you, Fehr isn't exactly opposed to forgoing postseason play.
These are two hard-headed men that won't settle for anything less than the best deal for their side.
In the end, it's likely that Bettman and his consortium of owners finish this labor dispute with a victory. However, whenever the league comes back, it may do so with far fewer fans than expected.
Granted, the NHL will always have the most hardcore fans. The ones whose love of the game was spurred by a special relationship with a parent, who grew up playing hockey with friends and still love skating around the rink in their spare time.
Those people are a given. They will come back like herded sheep and you cannot blame them. Not even a hatred of the people running a sport can make you hate the sport itself.
However, this lockout has absolutely nothing to do with the hockey diehards. It has to do with the continuing loss of the cash cow casual fan.
A quick look at the ratings shows that the casuals were already leaving in droves.
Even with the momentum of a fantastic playoff slate and the Los Angeles Kings (a major market team) in the Stanley Cup Finals, ratings were already down 29 percent from a year ago (via Yahoo! Sports).
Let's not sugarcoat anything here, either. It's not as if hockey is a bastion of popularity to begin with. By most accounts, the NHL if the fourth most popular professional sports league in the United States, and may even be battling for that spot with NASCAR.
If this lockout cuts the 2012-13 season on half or cancels the campaign altogether, the NHL won't hold a candle to NASCAR and may begin seeing the MLS in its rear-view mirror.
This is jarring, because not too long ago it seemed like hockey was on the verge of a renaissance. With big-named stars like Sidney Crosby leading the charge and putting up points by the truckload, the league was both fun to watch and full of recognizable names.
By preventing those names from taking the ice, Bettman is preventing his sport from growing, and may wind up seeing the league turn into a second-tier niche sport.
Let's just hope that the league settles this lockout before that worst-case scenario happens.
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