It seems like every time a discussion starts up about the damage the NHL (as a whole) has done to itself during the lockout, both financially and in the public eye, it always comes down to the same statement.
"The die-hards will be back, but it’s the casual fan leaving that should worry the NHL"
I’ve probably agreed with this in the past, or simply didn’t think about it enough. But now I’m not so sure the NHL should bother worrying about the casual fan, at least not at this point.
With all the news surrounding the most recent talks between NHL players and owners, and the light at the end of the lockout tunnel emerging, it’s quite possible that we’re hearing about a start date to the season within the next couple weeks. So for the sake of this article, let’s just say the league starts up again around Christmas.
For the "casual" fan, what’s the big deal? Hockey started a couple months later than usual. It’s provided just enough time to get sick of basketball.
And what exactly is a casual hockey fan? I have a really tough time determining.
I have friends who don’t really follow the lockout negotiations, probably don’t know a huge number of players’ names, and even some who don’t even have loyalties to a team. But these are the same friends who’ll ask me "When is the lockout going to end? I’m dying for some Saturday night hockey and beers." Is this type of fan going to be so upset by the so-called "greed" of owners and players, that they turn their backs on watching NHL hockey? Doubtful.
On the other hand you have another casual fan, the falsely self-proclaimed "die-hard" who drapes themselves in team apparel, claims to be the biggest fan there ever was, and when you try to talk hockey with them you quickly realize this person doesn’t know much about the game at all. You know a person like this, guaranteed. This is likely the same person who says they’ll stop watching the NHL because of the lockout, but will obviously return because they don’t want their title of super-fan to be swooped out from under them.
Under the assumption that a partial season does take place, I think the NHL has nothing to worry about in terms of fans. Things haven’t soured to that point yet. Do you think the same people who protested in anger outside league offices a few months ago are going to stay away from tuning in to a big NHL match-up when they see it on the channel guide? Obviously not.
The league is aware of how much they can push fans without losing them, and knew they had a portion of the schedule they were willing to scratch from the outset. As Bob McKenzie mentioned last night on TSN, the main reason for optimism now regarding this CBA negotiation is that it’s just simply time to get this thing done.
"In speaking with several economists whose focus is on the pure numbers of the sport rather than the deep emotions that have accompanied the lack of progress, it has been suggested that the owners have a clear understanding of exactly when is the optimal time to strike a deal with a players. Armed with the revenue and expense data that only the league and its teams have, economists say the league can project almost to the date when it becomes less beneficial to hold out for a better CBA and more beneficial to start playing hockey."
Everything in this negotiation seems to be perfectly calculated. There’s a reason behind all of it. But I’m not sure if there’s a reason the NHL should worry about losing the "casual" fan, and they probably never did.