When the puck next drops on an NHL season, the sport plans to regain its lost traction by taking a Zamboni to all the scars caused by the ongoing labor quagmire and starting with...
When the puck next drops on an NHL season, the sport plans to regain its lost traction by taking a Zamboni to all the scars caused by the ongoing labor quagmire and starting with a clean sheet.
Planning a sweeping and massive campaign to reinvent the game and its image, the NHL hopes to take advantage of the convergence of events to aggressively reassert itself after coming out of the work stoppage. Commissioner Gary Bettman calls it a “relaunch of the league,” with no hint of exaggeration. New rules. New finances. New television. New Reebok jerseys. New look. New outlook.
“The NHL right now is a league in peril — it either fixes its problems right now or its long-term future is in question,” said Dean Bonham, head of The Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports-marketing firm that has done market research for the league. “It’s not often that you have an opportunity to relaunch a league. … In my opinion, what you have to do is present the league in a new light. It’s a new era of stability. A new era of fan appreciation. A new era of technology.
“It can be an attractive and popular sport in this new era.”
But it won’t be easy.
The league’s plan — casually called the “relaunch” around the NHL office — has two main elements: Off ice and on it. Off ice, the NHL plans to roll out a new look and thematic “branding,” including integrating new corporate sponsors, interactive events and new media. Having a new collective-bargaining agreement would also be trumpeted because the league hopes it would come with stability for its franchises.
On the ice, the plan is to rekindle a fleeter, more offensive game.
Lessons learned from other leagues as they emerged from labor disputes have been studied, as has the fact that stronger leagues than the NHL have had lingering effects after stoppages.
There is no precedent for a major league in North America missing a whole season.
Ten years ago the NHL was billed by Sports Illustrated as the next hot sport, poised to overtake the NBA. That next fall, the NHL endured a 103-day lockout. Then came a glowing puck on TV games. Then came a clutch-and-grab defensive style. Then lower scoring.
Attendance hasn’t waned and revenue climbs, though ever slower according to the league. This year the NHL All-Star Game drew a Nielsen TV rating of 1.8, less than the 2.1 rating the Arena Football League earned on its opening weekend. NASCAR, golf and poker have leapfrogged slumbering hockey.
Ed Horne, the president of NHL Enterprises and the person overseeing the relaunch, said, “We are very cognizant of the fact that the fans will have been through a lot. We are not so naive to think there won’t be a lot of frustration and that it will take a lot to maintain our core fans and work to (grow) the game.”
In telephone polls of avid hockey fans conducted at the behest of the NHL, The Bonham Group found that those fans “recognize there’s a problem” with the league and “are willing to wait.” They said they would come back, Bonham said. Hockey is widely regarded as a core-audience sport — devoted, rabid fans that will always be devoted, rabid fans.
There aren’t many fringe or leisure fans. When asked how the league could reclaim the momentum it once had and expand its fan pool while retaining its base, Bonham pulls out his three-part plan for stability and growth:
* A new collective-bargaining agreement that ensures financial steadiness.
* Harnessing technology — primarily the advent of high-definition TV — to help the league bloom beyond a “ticket-centric” economy. Having a game freed by new rules to display on high-tech TVs would help. Also, using similar means to promote the players and league more extensively.
* A “rollback or at the minimum a stop to ticket prices,” Bonham said. The NHL average ticket price last season was $43.60, and while the league drums for lower salaries, so do fans for lower admission prices.
NBC, the league’s new broadcast partner, agreed to share revenues with the NHL instead of paying a guaranteed fee. The network will be essential in the relaunch. Bettman and many others have said HDTV will make hockey a better TV sport.
“Let me start by saying I don’t think any sport televises better in HD than hockey,” said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports. “We’ve got to find a way to find it in more places. The access to HD needs to expand first. … But it’s the spectacle of the game that just shows better, whether it’s the ice or details of the action. It’s not just about (seeing) the puck. It’s the vividness of the whole sport. It flat shows better. …
“We want to capture that experience.”