NHL has an emotional neutrality problem with hockey fans thanks to lockout

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Whenever a pundit wants to blame the fans for the NHL lockout, that belief is rooted in the idea that we'll always come back to the League no matter how many work stoppages we suffer through.

Darren Rovell of ESPN went as far as to write that "there will be virtually no consequences from losing a season"; a statement whose abject misunderstanding of hockey fans contradicts the author's standing as a sports marketing expert. A cancelled season would be devastating to the League's momentum in the U.S. and extraordinarily damaging to its standing with Canadian fans, perhaps irreparably so.

Will a Toronto Maple Leafs fan still be passionately engaged if, say, Roberto Luongo comes to town* and backstops the team into the conference semifinals? Of course; much like you might spend the night with an ex if you're ravenous enough.

Doesn't mean the engagement's back on.

The issue for the NHL as this juncture of the lockout isn't how angry the fans are, but how angry they're not.

Hockey is completely off the radar in the traditional sports media in the U.S.; we're talking a 'space probe flying past Pluto' distance from the rest of the ESPN-approved diet of sports talk. Fans that were engaged in the day-to-day of the lockout can no longer stomach it. If you thought apathy ruled the day before, you haven't seen the indifference dueling court filings can foster.

But let's assume the NHL isn't idiotic enough to cancel a second season in seven years and has a 2012- … OK, a 2013 campaign. The challenge isn't calming enraged fans; the challenge is convincing those who have lived their lives NHL free for months to make time and spend money on the League again.

The challenge may be more formidable for the NHL than previously imagined.

Roy MacGregor of the Globe & Mail had a piece on Tuesday that chronicled the work of Level5, a market research firm that tracks the emotions of different consumer bases. Their study covered 1,066 people; what did they find?

From a branding point of view, NHL hockey and its multiple corporate sponsors are facing a huge hurdle, Kincaid says. The passionate fans are angry, the neutral fans turned off and bored, the mostly non-fans — the people hockey needs to attract if it hopes to grow — disgusted.

"Think what this means to the sponsors of hockey," Kincaid says. "For almost one-third of Canadians, you are wasting your time on them. You've lost them. They are not going to become even 'neutral.'"

As for those who do care about the game and still feel cheated, Kincaid says anyone who believes all the NHL has to do is come back and all will go back to as it was should think again. "It's about damage control with these people," he says, "not about action on the ice."

Those "neutral fans" are the ones that we're most worried about. The 'take-it-or-leave-it' types that dip into hockey when there's something to watch — the Winter Classic, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, big rivalry games — but summarily ignore it otherwise.

Here's more evidence from a poll released on Tuesday:

Fifty-eight per cent of Canadians have no interest in the two sides reaching an agreement in the National Hockey League dispute, according to survey results out today.  The telephone survey by NRG Research Group and Peak Communicators was completed between December 11th and 16th in six regions across Canada. It includes the responses of 801 individuals.

The survey results, which come out a week after the NHL announced the cancellation of games through to December 30th, also found that 25 per cent of Canadians don't believe the lockout will be resolved in time to salvage a season.

"Canadians are clearly becoming disillusioned with the dispute process," says Brian Owen, CEO and founder of NRG Research Group. "A large majority of us either don't care about a settlement or don't see an end in sight to the negotiations."

As André Richelieu, sports marketing professor at Université Laval, told Canadian Business last month:

It's marketing myopia to believe that because we have the best fans in the world, that they will come back to the NHL. There are other ways to watch hockey; there are other ways to entertain yourselves with sports or other artistic and cultural activities. And already, people are getting accustomed to spending their disposable income on other entertainment options. The biggest danger is that the NHL believes that everything starts and ends with the NHL. That's a recipe for disaster.

… The biggest danger—and this would appear if the season is totally cancelled—is that [the fans'] frustration and anger is transformed into apathy or indifference.

That danger's been realized. Fans don't care.

They're deaf to the back-and-forth between the players and the owners, especially after both sides cried wolf during their last round of intense negotiations. The issues between the two sides have been nebulous in this round of talks — hockey-related revenue, contractual issues, escrow. Now that we've reached the legal wrangling portion of this pathetic standoff, even the most engaged fans are reacting with a yawn and a "wake me when it's over."

What if they're still asleep to the NHL after the lockout ends?

(* C'mon, we all know this is happening, right?)

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