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Thursday, September 13, 2012
Owners know fans will return

By Darren Rovell
ESPN

Nick Mancuso knows that what makes a hockey fan is what's going to kill the hockey fan this season.

"We're a unique community," said Mancuso, whose company, Kynetyk, makes hockey equipment. "They know we'll all come back. They're going to get away with it again."

It's no secret that hockey is a niche sport in America. Always has been, always will be.

Only 8.8 percent of Americans who are at least 12 years old call themselves avid hockey fans, according to an ESPN Sports Poll. That's compared to the 34.3 percent of Americans in that age bracket who call themselves NFL fans.

But those fans who are die-hard are seemingly more attached to the game than hard-core fans in other sports, and people who consider themselves casual fans seem more likely to show up to a baseball game or a basketball game than get behind the boards.

What does that mean? It means the league relies mostly on guys such as Nick Mancuso, and it knows where it stands.

In a Twitter poll I took, 76.5 percent of people who called themselves hockey fans said a season off wouldn't affect their interest. As for those who answered they'd walk away, I'm sure most of them wouldn't.

And that's why commissioner Gary Bettman had no problem recommending to the owners to lock out the players in 2004 and again this year.

The bottom line is that there will be virtually no consequences from losing a season, if that's what it takes to get the players to fold. Sure, hockey fans might take to watching other sports to keep them busy, but they'll be back.

Owners of teams that had great seasons won't lose much momentum. If they own their arenas, they can get aggressive booking acts to help pay off debt. And remember, they're still getting $200 million from NBC not to play. That's because union executive director Donald Fehr and his cohorts somehow haven't run to the courts to get an injunction against the owners taking that money despite the league not playing. Hint: The NFL union successfully got the league's money put aside.

When Bettman and the owners locked out the players and missed the entire season in 2004-05, people thought Bettman had made a horrible miscalculation. It turned out to be genius. The league got the concessions it wanted -- well, at least for the time -- and fans came back. Now, owners lockouts are par for the course after the NBA and NFL went through it last year. By the way, those leagues also came back stronger than ever.

Even if the players have the strongest union leader in the history of sports in Fehr, the rule is billionaires always beat millionaires.

But the owners aren't doing this because they know the players will fold. They're doing it because they know the fans won't leave them.

"They know who we all are," Mancuso said. "We know the game, we play the game, we coach the game. They know I'm still going to buy a Winter Classic jersey."