NHL's Relevancy Problem

In my last post, I vented frustrations about the NHL's lockout of its players over contract issues. My conclusion was that the NHL does not care about fans, so why should fans care about the NHL? Yes, I am perturbed by the NHL's inability to avoid work stoppage and the resulting interruption in hockey, but the league faces a much larger problem that will loom larger with each passing day of the lockout. Hockey is but one sport in the sports entertainment landscape... and a relatively small one at that in the United States. Maintaining relevance as one of the major sports properties will become more difficult for the league if it continues to wage battle at the bargaining table instead of on the ice.

The early fall season is a sports fan's dream: College football and NFL seasons are underway, MLB is headed toward its postseason, NASCAR is in the homestretch for the Sprint Cup, and the NBA and college hoops are waiting in the wings to get started. On top of all this activity, soccer is enjoying newly found interest in the U.S. through MLS expansion and expanded coverage of the English Premier League. A prolonged absence by the NHL will result in the league losing relevance among casual sports fans, the very ones needed to expand the fan base for hockey.

In a recent blog post, Bleacher Report CEO Brian Grey points out that several U.S. sports properties are on the rise in terms of heightened sponsor interest. Expanded playoff format for MLB, exciting rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, intense geographic rivalries in MLS, and new energy in New York and Los Angeles for the NBA increase the value of associating with these properties for sponsors. In contrast, the NHL sits on the bench as owners and players argue over what percentage of revenues each side should get.

The NHL has a very passionate core fan base, and while we (I have to count myself among this audience) are likely to forgive and return to the sport there are many more sports fans than us for which hockey is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The NHL worked diligently since the last lockout to attract people to the sport. In the process, it made the NHL more valuable to corporate sponsors, which is one reason why the league's annual revenue increased from $2 billion to $3 billion. Sadly, many of the gains made in recent years by the NHL stand to be lost in a relatively short period of time.

The relevance clock is ticking, National Hockey League. Your great sport will become marginalized (some would say marginalized further) if you do not get your product back on the market quickly. Consumers have many other options for sports entertainment, and sponsors have other (and more effective) options to reach and engage their customers.

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