NHL Rebounds from the Lockout as Attendance Hits Decade-High Pace

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IFebruary 21, 2013

Feb 20: Average attendance for the 2013 NHL Season is on track for its highest in over a decade according to ESPN statistics.
Feb 20: Average attendance for the 2013 NHL Season is on track for its highest in over a decade according to ESPN statistics.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Just over a month ago, the 2012-13 NHL season was on the brink of cancellation. Ultimately, the NHLPA—led by Donald Fehr—and the NHL came to an agreement on a 50-50 revenue split and term limits on player contracts and ended the 119-day lockout. 

The new collective bargaining agreement salvaged this season and remains in effect for 10 years.

The league is now rebounding from the cancellation of the NHL All-Star Game and the increasingly popular Winter Classic, which would have taken place in front of 100,000 fans at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich. as well as millions more at home on TV. 

Since its inception in 2008, each of the four annual Winter Classics has ranked in the top five most-watched NHL regular-season games since 1975. This year's contest was to feature two Original Six teams, the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Meanwhile, fans and business owners that rely on attendance at hockey games grew frustrated by the stoppage, which raised concern over whether the fanbase would return in its entirety. Local pubs and restaurants, as well as stores that sell hockey-related items, suffered and were forced to lay off  employees.

The good news is that, since NHL hockey's return, attendance is up 1.42 percent over last season, according to ESPN statistics. While these figures represent just a slight increase, the league should be encouraged that fans have decided to return, rather than revolt.

In fact, attendance is on track to increase for a third consecutive season.

NBC’s first broadcast after the lockout, which featured regional coverage of the Penguins versus Flyers—featuring superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—and Kings versus Blackhawks, drew the best regular-season overnight ratings in more than a decade (excluding Winter Classic games). 

Throughout the playoffs last season, TV ratings on NBC reached an NHL decade-high. In 2011, NBC signed a 10-year extension with the NHL and it is now paying dividends.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, rule changes have increased the speed and appeal of the game and better promoted top stars such as Henrik Lundqvist and Claude Giroux

The league has revamped its focus on branding. In 2006, the NHL became the first major sports league to reach a video content agreement with YouTube, which it utilizes by connecting fans with 15,000 video-streamed highlights. The NHL's YouTube channel has over 200,000 subscribers and well over 100 million views. 

Hockey has a passionate and forgiving fanbase. In spite of enduring a third lockout in less than 20 years, the NHL has emerged strong. The key is engaging the casual fan. Although the league has much work to regain momentum, indications are that the NHL's fortunes are still on the rise.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high-profile placements are New York Jets GM John Idzik, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke. Earlier in his career, Jed coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.