Commentary

The lockout and the damage done

Updated: January 6, 2013, 8:45 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- And so the National Hockey League will have hockey after all.

Not sure whether to laugh, cry or just throw up at the absurdity of it all as the two sides emerged early Sunday morning from a 16-hour overnight bargaining session that yielded a tentative 10-year deal that will see players return for a 48- or 50-game schedule sometime in the next two weeks.

This much we know: It's going to take a lot more than a couple of lame words of contrition painted on NHL rinks to get fans to forget this titanic display of greed and stubbornness.

Unless the league is prepared to trot out something brutally honest like "Yes, We Are That Stupid, Thanks For Asking" or "Lockouts 'R' Us," the NHL is better served to simply leave their ice surfaces nice and pristine as though the new labor agreement is indeed a clean slate.

Just give the fans their game back and get out of the way is the sentiment being echoed from many quarters of the hockey world.

In the wake of a freshly minted labor agreement, one that in the end didn't cost an entire season but did cost almost half the 2012-13 season, the Winter Classic in Detroit and the All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio, not to mention a healthy dollop of credibility on both sides of the fence, no one knows just how significantly the game has been damaged.

One long-time executive with a collection of personal and team awards under his belt suggested recently it would be "a battle" to bring the fans back.

"Hope everyone knows how much we have in front of us when we get playing," he told ESPN.com recently.

"We have a lot of goodwill to make up. People are really disappointed in us. We need some real good things to give them cause to come back in the arena."

Paul Swangard, a marketing guru with the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, agrees that is a good strategy, especially with so much animosity directed at the league as a whole.

"I think the let-them-play strategy is a good one," he said shortly before a deal was reached early Sunday morning. "I believe the league will let the teams drive the messaging strategy based on local markets. Fans will hopefully blame the league rather than their home team."

It's all going to be a blur, of course, with the details still being worked through on when the deal will be ratified by the players and the league's board of governors, when exactly training camp will start and even when games will start -- either Jan. 15 or Jan. 19, depending on whether it's a 48- or 50-game schedule.

And that blur might be a blessing in the short term as fans -- those who haven't been totally alienated by the labor stoppage -- will quickly be caught up in playoff races, trade deadlines and the like.

Swangard said he thinks the league and its teams have to tread a fine line between being apologetic, which will only enrage already disenchanted fans, while at the same time being conciliatory, acknowledging the damage to the relationship.

"Fans are smart enough and passionate enough to understand what's going on," he said.

But assessing the damage is only part of the challenge that faces a game that simply can't stop shooting itself in the collective foot. Repairing it is going to be crucial.

How do the league and its players chart a course back to the momentum that saw record revenues in each of the past five years?

Is it even possible, or do the deep flaws in the league's labor strategies make that impossible?

Seven years ago, there was an entire season to make up for at the end of the last lockout, but there was also a new game to trumpet, new rules, promises of a faster, more dynamic product on the ice, new players in Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin on whom to pin the hopes of a league fresh from another flirtation with self-destruction.

This time around, the picture is a lot fuzzier, the fans' feelings significantly more mixed when it comes to the league, in large part because things on so many levels had been a success.

National revenues for the league were projected at $600 million this season, up from $220 million in the first season after the last lockout, 2005-06.

Operating profits were expected to rise to $470 million this season from $160 million in 2006.

In a presentation made by league executives to both the owners and players on the eve of the lockout, a plan was laid out that explained how the league hoped to add $300 million in new revenues over the next three years. Initiatives like a stadium series of outdoor games would blend returns to traditional hockey markets such as Chicago and Boston while expanding outdoor opportunities to other markets, perhaps coinciding with a national hockey moment like Hockey Weekend Across America. Revenues were expected to grow thanks to international events like a revamped World Cup of Hockey schedule, European markets, digital media and so on.

The message last summer was crystal clear: Things are pretty good, so don't screw it up.

Shortly after that presentation, the league responded by locking out its players for the third time in commissioner Gary Bettman's tenure.

Take a moment at this point to bang your head on a door frame in disgust and dismay.

Now take two aspirin.

The problem for the NHL is that this lockout, one of its own making and flawed strategically from the get-go, will make it difficult at best, impossible at worst, to repair relationships with those it needs most to continue to see revenue growth.

As one person familiar with the league's financial picture explained, you can't kill the golden goose twice, and if the last lockout cooked that goose the first time, this one marked cooked goose No. 2.

Take sponsors, who committed money and time to create strategies around the NHL and its marquee events, like the canceled Winter Classic and All-Star Game.

What do you think those executives' bosses said to them when the league went dark in September and stayed dark through to the new year?

"What were you thinking? Don't you know the league's labor history? Why did you waste our money?"

The executives' response: "Well, we were told it wouldn't go down like this." And that's exactly what happened.

Sponsors and partners, such as NBC Sports, were in fact told by league officials, including Bettman, that this negotiation would be a "tweak and a fix."

Jon Miller, the head of NBC Sports, told The Boston Globe exactly that as the lockout extended through the end of the calendar year and the sports network languished without its key property.

Never mind the rest of this season in terms of generating new ad money or sponsorships, most businesses have already moved into commitments for later in their fiscal years, which would coincide with the start of the 2013-14 NHL season.

McDonald's (in the United States) was supposed to be a key NHL sponsor with an ad campaign tied to the Winter Classic, All-Star Game and other high-profile events, but it moved on and signed a two-year deal with the NFL after the lockout started.

The lockout also has the potential to set the game back in terms of deals with cable providers and where the NHL Network is carried on their services (if it's carried at all).

What makes this lockout even more mind-boggling is that in the presentation made to the players and to the NHL's owners before the lockout, they were shown the strides the league had taken in a range of areas, including recognition and relevance among sports fans.

Various studies commissioned by the league found that the NHL had seen its relevance since the last lockout rise to be considered on a par with notable events such as the NCAA's March Madness and Final Four events.

Another study of fan preference obtained by ESPN.com showed that compared to other sports fans in the United States, hockey fans believed fervently that the best days were ahead of the NHL. Among fans defined as "avid," 86 percent believed that to be true while 74 percent of fans designated as "casual" believed the future was bright for the league. By comparison, 77 percent of avid football fans felt that way about the NFL and only 25 percent of NBA fans felt that basketball's best days were ahead of it.

A plan was laid out that would help improve the NHL's presence and profile in Canada as a whole, with the league acting as a unifying force within the game.

Where are those plans now?

And so the question becomes not just how to fix these many broken bridges but who, if anyone, should pay the price for what is an obviously flawed strategy on the part of the league in dealing with its players.

Those questions aren't just being asked by Bettman's critics outside the game, they're being asked from within as well.

In most corporations, if there is a calamitous event, top executives pay with their jobs. This is Bettman's third lockout. That suggests a failure in terms of strategy emanating from the top and/or a failure of the ownership group, who are essentially Bettman's bosses, to give the commissioner the correct mandate.

Bettman supporters will suggest he has not had an easy time of it dealing with Bob Goodenow and then Donald Fehr as leaders of the players' union, but what about this: If the NHL's pattern of labor behavior wasn't so antagonistic, the players might not have felt the need to hire Fehr.

There's a fresh sheet of ice awaiting the NHL, its players and fans.

What will be written on that slate? Another story of redemption or a darker tale of the chickens finally coming home to roost after years of shortsightedness?

On second thought, maybe there is a slogan the NHL could use on the ice of its arenas that might resonate.

How about "Never Again"?

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