How do you restart a sports league again, just eight years after a similar fresh-in-the-mind lockout?
This is the NHL’s big task. For many NHL fanatics, nothing else quite fills their need for sports TV viewing. Timing might help here, given that there is still a season, shortened as it is. Perhaps it helps that the NFL season is coming to an end just as this new NHL season is beginning.
The sport, which was on the way back from viewing losses on local TV (broadcast stations/regional cable networks) and national venues (NBC and NBC Sports Network) due to its previous lockout in 2004-2005, may actually not be as damaged this time. The league has saved half the season, including the higher-viewed playoffs.
TV consumers are increasingly a smart lot. Many know that lockouts come down to money issues -- players want more; team owners don’t want to spend more. (Sports business stories report that a majority of NHL teams continue to lose money, with 18 of 30 teams in the red).
So what should be the messaging here? "We're back" -- or a more honest, "Sure you missed us. We're just warming up our fore-checking for you"? Perhaps a more frank, "We're sorry. We plan to do better next time."
Many believe that in such specific markets as Detroit and in Canada, loyal fans will continue to tune in and come out to games. One print ad for the Detroit Red Wings shows the team in play, highlighting their usual red-themed jerseys with red-clothing fans in the background. "Thanks for sticking with us" reads the copy.
Loyalty among key TV sports fans can always be stretched and strained. But it doesn't snap. The key question is what happens with light-to-moderate fans? That's where the NHL depends on growth. One can imagine they won't be returning anytime soon. That's where the work lies.
Good news: Sports leagues -- with high name recognition -- are still a high priority for many TV advertisers, especially those seeking hard-to-get young male viewers in a continued fractionalization of media/entertainment/sports consumers.
Though the NHL is pretty much a niche sport, it continues to offer media and marketing value. The hard part is figuring out what value the league still holds now.