With lockout, NHL is starving itself

Photo sourced from Flickr (GoodSquadSarah)

That the NHL takes its fans for granted—especially its Canadian fans—is no great revelation. This is, after all, a league which has trundled itself to the edge of the abyss on so many different occasions that questioning its sense of purpose has almost become a national past-time in Canada.

But with this season's lockout, they may not realize how close it is to falling into that abyss by biting the hand that feeds it: an engaged fan base.

Consider the ways in which the consumption of professional sport has changed since the last lockout eight years ago. The loss of hockey games is the core effect of this lockout, to be sure, but fan experience has exploded since the loss of the 2004–05 season, and there’s really no denying that the tap which has been shut off this time around is one which is quite a bit different from all other taps previously. 

We used to rub sticks and smash rocks in order to see a few games a week in standard definition on tube televisions, and maybe we’d catch the highlights again before bed and maybe we’d read about it the next day in the paper.

Now, fully at the helm of our own customizable fan experiences, we tweet, stream, simulcast and PVR as many games a night and a week as we desire, and the fallout from every game, big event and moment of brilliance or infamy spills instantly onto twitter, fan-blogs, 24/7 sports-talk radio, and the major online news media. In good markets, all of this is cross-weaved back into the more traditional media outlets and the process comes somewhat full-circle again.

And let’s not fail to mention the proliferation of high-definition broadcasting—still the single greatest gift to sports fans in the history of the world.

The reality, now, is that the games are no longer the experience in and of themselves—they’re the seeds of fan experience and everything else flows from them taking place. And so with their loss comes greater, exponential loss.

In an age of instant and 24/7 multi-platform demand, this current NHL lockout risks separating fan from product in a way which transcends the simple consumption of sport. It risks separating fans from a kind of ‘super-hobby’ lifestyle, and for a product driven by fan interest and a demand for constant fan engagement—in a league haunted by falling attendance figures and failing franchises—that starvation-of-self is really quite stunning.

Not all markets are created equal, and Vancouver is a prime example of how the changing media and fan landscapes have probably made a lockout more endurable in the short run.

The Canucks do fan engagement and new media remarkably well, and the Vancouver hockey twitterverse and blogosphere are both a robust spoil of riches. The traditional media here have embraced the challenges of engaging readers and listeners and excelled at moderating and encouraging a daily, city-wide conversation about the state of the Canucks and the NHL more generally.

It’s unlikely that fans in Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada will sour of the NHL so much on account of this latest lockout that they shun the league upon its return in any meaningful way, or in any large numbers.

But there’s a reasonable limit to patience, and taking patience for granted in a day and age of entertainment-overload and rapidly decreasing attention-spans is a dangerous, dangerous game. To say nothing of it being a slap to the face to the very people pouring the money into the pie that’s being squabbled over.

It certainly wasn’t surprising to discover that the NHL had the stomach to take us all down this hole for a third time in 18 years. And, given the amount of money involved, it also wasn’t surprising to see the representatives of each camp digging and reinforcing trench-line for a potentially long and protracted fight.

But it’s been very surprising to see the degree to which fan interest has, yet again, been taken completely for granted.

How that fact plays outside of Canada, in less traditional hockey markets, will go a long way to determining the relative value and worth eventually extracted from this latest NHL lockout.

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