My NHL Lockout Theory

I’m a huge hockey fan. I dabbled in watching the game in the early ’90s. I’m a Chicago Blackhawks fan today because of Jeremy Roenick in 1990. However, in those pre-Internet days, I didn’t have sufficient access to either the rules or broadcasts to appreciate the game. My southern hometown didn’t get an ice rink until I was in college. I slowly faded away from the game. I regret that now.

Thankfully, in 2009, I discovered adult beer league hockey. I joined a team and finally grasped the rules and, more importantly, the beauty of the game. The strategy, the flow, even the simple sound of skates cutting through ice… All of it is amazing and fills me with joy. I can’t drop hockey again.

That history makes the current NHL lockout frustrating. I love NHL hockey. I watch every Blackhawks game, and a significant number of games beyond that on the Center Ice television package. The league is betting on the fact that I’ll return. And I will. There is no doubt on that. The league won’t lose me. Although I’ll likely buy less merchandise, if any, for a while to punish the league and the players, I’m not going to watch less.

At Backhand Shelf, Justin Bourne explores this in depth. I agree with it all. Here’s the gist:

Friedman never directly says it in the piece, but I think the implication is exactly what I’ve been trying to put into words for awhile now: Gary Bettman is overestimating hockey fans passion for the NHL (my words, not his). Something about the current mess made me tag this post with both “final straw” and “camel’s back.”

Bettman has seen the fans come back time and time again during his tenure, and is unwisely taking the fans for granted once more.

What he doesn’t realize, is that hockey fans love hockey, not the NHL. The love the Stanley Cup, but it doesn’t belong to the league. The love pond hockey, which is why the league’s heart-string twanging nostalgic playoff commercials are so widely beloved. There is no loyalty to some “shield,” the way Roger Goodell refers to the NFL. There’s hockey, and goddamn is it a terrific game.

Even if the league does get it figured out and only a half-season is missed, I’ll call it now: the fans aren’t coming running back this time (unless it happens like, soon-soon). There’s only so many times you can abuse someone before they snap. Some people have shorter fuses than others, and I’ve talked to people who’ve gone from anger to apathy this time, which as Elliotte implies, should be petrifying for the NHL.

Exactly. However, I disagree with the generally-accepted underlying theory that the NHL lockout is evidence that the league takes for granted that a floor exists where the league will always have certain fans and their money. I think it’s something worse. Despite record revenue growth and reason for optimism, the league believes it is near its ceiling. Instead of viewing this as greed, the stupidity of a second lockout in eight years makes sense if the league’s owners believe they are fighting for a larger piece of a revenue stream that has neared its maximum.

The most telling fact for my theory, I think, is the recent television deal with NBC Sports Network. It’s a ten-year deal. I can understand why the league would want stability. And they reached a new high in annual value for that deal, at $200 million per season. The deals for other leagues make that look like pocket change, but for the NHL, it’s progress. But if they believed that the league will continue to grow at approximately 7%, give or take minor currency fluctuations between the U.S. and Canadian dollars, why lock at that rate for a decade? And why lockout now when a missed season would merely tack on a free season in year 11 for NBC Sports Network? I’m certain the owners know that the free 11th year could instead bring them far more in present value than the $200 million they’ll get this year if they don’t play hockey. I think they don’t believe the NHL can grow enough to generate a significant jump in 2022. We’re near the maximum the sport can produce as a permanent niche for entertainment dollars.

Or I could be wrong and the NHL, Commissioner Gary Bettman, and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr are egotistical lunatics indifferently destroying the league for their own short-term need to win at all costs.