In 2008, as the worst recession since the Great Depression crippled the economy of the United States, many economists harped that the entertainment industry – and more specifically, professional sports – was “recession proof.” Right or wrong, and I’d describe professional sports as being more so “recession resistant,” it was the foundation for a worthwhile conversation amongst sports business junkies. And it’s the “recession proof” conversation that got me thinking about Canada and the National Hockey League in 2013.
Fresh off its second lockout in eight years, and third in less than 20 years, the NHL is once again fighting to earn back the respect of its fans. But, compared to 2005, the commentary on the streets has seemed more ruthless this time around. Fans are mad. The stupidity of this lockout – with the owners and players squabbling over a few extra million bucks – has struck a cord with even the most hardcore of NHL followers. From petitions and threatening letters directed at Gary Bettman, to protests and outlandish wars of words on Twitter, fans from Vancouver to Montreal have expressed frustration to the point of legitimate boycott talks.
The owners’ answer? Freebies.
Leading up to Saturday’s opening of the 2013 regular season, Canadian NHL teams frantically arranged freebies, prizes, and discounts to buy back the loyalty of their fans. The Edmonton Oilers announced a ton of cool prizes, 55% discounts on food, and 40% discounts on merchandise for their home opener. True North Sports and Entertainment Chairman Mark Chipman greeted Winnipeg Jets’ fans at the door with smiles and handshakes. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs – yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs – decided to reward their season ticket holders with home opener tickets on the house, gave away 1,000 home opener tickets, and plan to clad patrons with free scarves for their troubles.
But was the panic all for not?
It seems as if the large cries for boycotts were empty. As packed arenas, bars, and basements across Canada welcomed back the NHL on Saturday, it appears that Canadian NHL hockey fans have decided to forgive, forget, and forge on – team jersey in hand. On Saturday, all 13 NHL games were sold out including games in Winnipeg, Montreal, and Vancouver. Canadians embraced the return of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada with 3.3 million viewers tuning into the Maple Leafs at Canadiens game – making it the most-watched regular season Prime East game ever according to CBC. And even south of the border, NBC’s Saturday NHL coverage scored the network a 2.0, making it the most watched non-Winter Classic regular season game in a decade.
Why all of the sudden love?
While the freebies certainly didn’t hurt, that’s anyone’s guess. Maybe the swift forgiveness is due to the owners and the NHLPA finding a way to make amends before pushing fans away for good. Maybe it’s the opening weekend honeymoon. Maybe the love for the game is in our DNA. Your guess is as good as mine. What I can say for certain is that the numbers don’t lie. And by looking at the opening weekend numbers, it’s hard not to support the theory that Canadian NHL fans are in fact lockout proof.
Adam Puddicombe is a weekly blog contributor to Sports Business Canada