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Fan anger rising with NHL on road to brand suicide

NHL fans How many fans will return to watching NHL games and buying official merchandise after the lockout is always debatable, but it is clear that some have already left the building and other are calling for a boycott of opening night. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

I usually don't publish emails that I receive, but this one from Tuesday about a fan's reaction to the NHL's ongoing lockout should be shared:

I just wonder how many fans will take a stand and not show up when and if this does get resolved.  Nothing would please me more as a disheartened fan than on opening night of whatever season is next the arenas are empty.  Sadly for me this lockout is personal in that my 13- and 15-year-old daughters were becoming die-hard Penguins and hockey in general fans.  It was great family time to get in front of the TV with Center Ice and cheer the Pens on in full jersey garb as we have the last two seasons.  They couldn't wait for the start of this season.  We have lost that time together and a sports bond that I cherish to this day that I had with my father.  The NHL has lost them.  They have no desire to watch hockey anymore, they don't understand the issues and could care less.  They just loved watching hockey with their dad.  They don't like football or any other sport so that is something I will never get back once they sort this out.

Regards,

Curtis M.

Now, there's nothing earthshaking here. It's just one father's story about how the lockout impacts his family. Maybe it struck me as worth sharing because I'm a father, too, and I know about the bond Curtis says he had with his father and the one he shared with his daughters.

We often reference the amount of money that owners and players have lost by postponing this season, and we've also discussed the plight of arena workers and others whose shrinking incomes depend on fans coming to games. You can't attach a dollar sign to what Curtis believes he has lost.

But if the lockout has turned off too many people, there will be dollar signs attached to that for the NHL. Curtis doesn't seem like an angry guy, but you can't mistake his sentiment when he says he hopes fans boycott the NHL's opening night, whenever that happens to be. There's no doubt that anger among the fans is growing.

Not long after I got Curtis' email, I read this on Sam Carchidi's blog for The Philadelphia Inquirer: "A Flyers season-ticket holder wants fans to boycott the home opener if the NHL ever returns from its labor war. 'Whether it's this year or next year, the first game back should be in an empty Wells Fargo Center,' said Bill O'Toole.

"He said it would serve as 'a protest to what the league and the players have put us through. It would be a national story and a fitting 'final word' put on the debacle by the fans, the ones who write the checks for the billions of dollars these two sides can't seem to divide.'

"O'Toole claimed he has received lots of support from other season-ticket holders on his idea, and he is hopeful it spreads around the league."

O'Toole's idea isn't new. There were calls even before the season started, and not just for boycotting games but reducing spending on all sorts of NHL-related products, from tickets to the Center Ice Package to NHL merchandise. An "Un-follow" campaign came and went in September. The idea continues to surface (Greg Wyshynski published a couple of passionate boycott emails from fans earlier this month on his Yahoo Puck Daddy blog and he remarked, "We don't think a coordinated boycott will work. But it's the thought that counts."

If it doesn't work, perhaps it's because effective boycotts require an active, dedicated organization and that's lacking. A letter or a website, a Facebook or Tumblr page alone won't do it. An NHL Fans Association has been around for a number of years -- here's their website -- and I recall it having some prominence in 2004. It claims over 30,000 members but hasn't had much to say publicly about this lockout since August.

"We're still very active," said Jim Boone, NHLFA's founder, in an email, "but not doing as much publicly this time around." He's been "lobbying the NHL and NHLPA behind the scenes....at first, was encouraging them to adopt the fans solution (1 percent drop in players' share of revenue each year for six years) and lately have been insisting that both parties do some significant things for the fans upon completion of the new CBA."

Boone believes, "This has a better effect on the outcome than jumping up and down." He's not in favor of a boycott, saying he doesn't think it would work.

Still, people continue to try to harness the fan acrimony. The most recent is another attempt at a rally in front of the NHL offices and the NHL Store in Manhattan at 1 PM on Saturday. A similar one was staged on Sept. 15 in New York city and attempted elsewhere (the turnouts, as we wrote, were sparse to non-existent).

In Wednesday's Washington Post, Katie Carrera informed readers there have been very few cancellations of Capitals season tickets so far. But she also reported that the league's image is taking a beating and her source for that is Ed O’Hara, senior partner of New York-based SME Branding, which helped devise the league's successful rebound strategy coming out of the last lockout and still counts the NHL as one of its clients.

"The league has become known for lying to its fans, to its sponsors,” said O’Hara.“I don’t know how you come back from a prolonged stoppage a second time because it is unprecedented. Brands are built on promises. In this case, the promised experiences of seeing the greatest athletes in the world. That’s all gone now.”

O'Hara told Carrera that winning back fans this time will have to involve more than painting "Thank You Fans" on the ice. "There will have to be financial incentive for fans to come back, whether free tickets, events, products,” he said. “However they do it, it’s got to be authentic, real, and hit the wallet of the ticket buyer.”

Carrera also spoke with Tony Knopp, the CEO of Spotlight TMS, which helps a few thousand companies manage their corporate ticket purchases, and he had a very guarded assessment of how companies viewed the lockout. "Business continues, whether it does for the NHL or not. Competition among corporations continues, and so no company is sitting around, waiting to entertain customers until the NHL comes back," Knopp said.

"The overall amount being spent hasn’t changed, according to our data, they’re just spending it elsewhere,” added Knopp, whose company also works directly with eight NHL teams to help manage corporate sales. “The league is playing Russian roulette with this, because who’s to say those companies will be there when hockey comes back?”

Last week, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller called what was happening to the NHL "brand suicide." It seems everyone understands this except the people who are killing their businesses. Despite some efforts to stop it, most of us are left in sad quietude.

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