Last season the NHL recorded a record high profit and looked to be on its way to rivaling the "Big Three" in U.S. sports. The NHL had started regaining popularity as well as expanding a growing fanbase.
Then came the 2012-13 lockout.
While the entire season is not lost yet, the NHL cannot afford to lose an entire season like they did in 2004-05. The NHL seemed to have taken 10 steps forward since the last lockout with the league generating a record $3.3 billion last season. Attendance was up in most cities, a new TV deal had the league getting more exposure and the Winter Classic was becoming a great New Year's tradition.
Instead, the league has taken 10 steps backwards and finds itself in the same position that it was in during the 2004-05 season. During the '04-05 lockout, the NHL lost lots of casual fans, and the same has happened already this year.
The league does not have to worry about hardcore hockey fans taking their money and loyalties elsewhere, it is the new fans that they need to think about. For fans new or not as dedicated to the game of hockey and the NHL, the lockout seems like an act of greed and is unacceptable. Hockey as a whole will be damaged greatly if the NHL locks out completely for the 2012-13 season.
While the NHL and NBC Sports have a contract that goes through 2020-21, a full lockout would hurt the league's chances of extending that contract once it expired. While the NHL's contract was nowhere near the type of contract signed by the NFL or MLB, it was a step in the right direction.
If the NHL wishes to be able to continue to have at least 75 games broadcast on TV, they need to tread carefully when it comes to the lockout.
Each year, the Winter Classic has gained more and more popularity among hockey and non-hockey fans alike. The game had become an opportunity for the league to showcase two teams on the big stage. The fanfare and novelty of an outdoor game made the game a great marketing tool. Sports fans who normally would not watch hockey would watch the game or part of the game because of the novelty.
Even though the Winter Classic would probably continue in the 2013-14 season (or whenever the lockout is ended), it would not be the same type of event that it was in the past. With the reputation of the league damaged, the reputation and non-traditional fanbase of the NHL would greatly dip.
Along with the Winter Classic has come the HBO 24/7 series that has chronicled the lives of the two teams preparing to play in the Winter Classic. The show has been a great tool for the league, giving fans some insight into the world of a professional hockey player.
However, not even something as funny and quirky as a 24/7 series could draw some fans back to the NHL. Fans will be so disillusioned after two lockouts in eight seasons that they will not watch hockey, plain and simple.
Sponsors may also be less hesitant to jump into sponsoring the NHL, wondering what profit there might actually be. The NHL looked promising for major corporations to join as sponsors in the past few years with profit growing. With no season, there is no exposure for these sponsors, however. Some sponsors will drop from the NHL as soon as they can if the league is locked out for the entire season while others will stay. The money coming in from sponsors will dip, causing the league to have much less than the $3.3 billion they saw last season.
Another problem that has arisen in regards to the impending full season lockout is the loss of players.
Several players, including star attraction Alexander Ovechkin, have commented that they may just stay in their native KHL if the NHL misses the entire season. The KHL is widely regarded as the second-best league in the world, behind the NHL, and would benefit mightily from players like Ovechkin playing there full time.
While leaving for the KHL while still under contract would create big problems, Ovechkin is just the type of guy who would and will do it. It only takes one to start a landslide as well. Once someone like Ovechkin makes a statement, others will follow.
The players want the security of knowing that they will have a place to play, a place to work year after year, and with two lockouts in eight years, the NHL is not that place.
If the NHL cancels the entire 2013-13 season, the result would be very damaging. People who once claimed themselves hockey fans would be gone, money that once was there would be gone and players who once starred would no longer be in NHL sweaters. The NHL has worked hard to revive its public image since the '04-05 lockout, and all that hard work would go out the window with a full-season lockout.