This weekend we get a welcome respite from the games off the field…more games ON the field, and more importantly to the business overall, games back on the ice. The NHL returns after its extended lockout to a breakneck pace highlighted by conference-only schedules, little player movement and the equity that survived in major markets following the Los Angeles Kings taking the Stanley Cup from the New Jersey Devils last June.
So did the NHL benefit at all from the lockout? Well there is labor piece that came without losing a season. NBC, their major US broadcast partner, saw ratings drops with alternative programming that should give the league some props as to their value in the marketplace as a partner. Teams also spent the lockout doing the best they could engaging with fans through advanced alumni events, special skating parties, and providing more added value than ever before. The teams also got to spend even more time in refining a social strategy that will be implemented now in the shorter season, as well as making sure customer service, which remains an issue with some franchises in sport, is top notch.
The league will also benefit in the fact that most of the major American franchises…New York, Philly, Boston, LA, Chicago, Detroit…will have exciting and robust squads to hit the ground. The rebuilding seems to be in secondary markets, which will help add to the night in, night out excitement of the world’s fastest game. The league is also coming back with a schedule and at a time when hockey is really more top of mind than ever before. They will get a surprising bit of help from a quiet second weekend, the bye week before the Super Bowl, which again can provide a little more casual exposure for the sport to those looking to tune in for an event to replace football. Then in two weeks, the NFL goes and the stage is set for hockey and hoops for a clean six week stretch in the US and Canada before baseball comes into play. Just long enough to enjoy, not long enough to get bored.
Now was there lockout downside? Sure. No Bridgestone Winter Classic was a big blow, but one that can be revived in years to come. The loss of income to those whose business was around the games is something that can never be replaced either. However if the lockout did make the game more healthy, and put the sport in for a very exciting run to the playoffs, all negativity will be a memory before long. Each team has set up very strong promotional planes for the games return, and those matched with strong play from a global cast can mean that maybe, just maybe “Brand NHL” can recapture its momentum as fast as the game itself, and get right back to engaging without missing much of a beat.