Back in the heady days of 2011, the National Hockey League was basking in one of its best seasons ever. In its fifth consecutive year of record revenue growth, it raked in $3.3 billion—an increase of over $1 billion since the previous lockout in 2004-05. It inked a fat Molson Coors sponsorship deal and a new 10-year, $2-billion broadcast agreement with NBC. Not bad for a year when the sport’s biggest star, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, spent 100 days on the bench with a concussion. His triumphant return to the ice at Madison Square Garden in March seemed to augur great things to come for the pro hockey business.
That all seems a distant, naive memory thanks to 2012’s lockout gong show. Most major sports leagues have dealt with labour conflicts in recent years, but the NHL has had three since embattled commissioner Gary Bettman took the helm in 1993, two in the past decade. The bitter conflict over revenue sharing and the rules that govern players’ contracts is alienating fans, blowing revenue, risking hard-won endorsements and reducing sports pages everywhere to snoozeworthy labour newsletters.
The NHL had expected revenue to rise 5% in the 2012–13 season. Instead, the league is now losing up to $20 million a day, and the players up to $10 million a day, Bettman has said. According to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the loss of preseason games alone cost the league nearly $100 million in revenue. That doesn’t include collateral losses suffered by those who depend on the games for business, from the guy hawking hot dogs at the arena to hotel staff in host cities.
Over a third of the season has already been cancelled, including the Jan. 1 Winter Classic game and the much-anticipated 2013 All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio. Fan resentment has reached a boiling point. An emotional Philadelphia Flyers fan named Jaymes Hall captured the uneasy zeitgeist when he berated Bettman during a New York City media scrum on Nov. 21. “Let’s get back to playing! The fans are angry!” he yelled.
Bettman agreed to hear Hall’s grievances after the scrum ended, and for good reason. He knows that if fan goodwill corrodes, the sport will lose even more money after the lockout ends. A lengthy, ugly strike in which both sides are seen as intransigent could cause a backlash among hockey lovers, who could boycott NHL games once they’re back on the air. In 2004–05, the NHL became the first North American sports league to lose a whole season to labour woes. Even Maple Leaf fans—who have gotten used to disappointment over the years—might find any further labour disruption to be simply too much to take.