Even with the anticipated NHL lockout still five days away, many fans have predictably started drumming up support for online petitions to “let them play” or, even worse, made threats that they will never spend another dime on their favorite teams again if games are cancelled.
Forgetting the naivete of these related sentiments, maybe NHL fans should welcome a lockout as a respite from a sport that already plays too many games and has the shortest offseason of the four major North American professional sports.
I consider myself a dedicated hockey follower, especially when it comes to the NHL brand. I played the sport growing up and continue to do so, and I’ve worked for two USHL junior teams thus far. Clearly, I enjoy the sport and I’m invested in seeing it continue to grow and improve.
At the same time, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. I worry about the feasibility of attracting new fans to a sport that boasts a lengthy preseason, an 82-game regular season and a two-month Stanley Cup tournament.
Not only is this nine-month gauntlet a merciless grind for the players, coaches, staff and administration of NHL teams, but it’s tough to maintain fan interest throughout that extended period, especially in this era of enhanced entertainment options.
Sure, the avid fans will watch any hockey that’s put out there, but creating new fans needs to be a perpetual priority.
Look at recent developments in major league sports. Undoubtedly, the NFL is king in America and will be for a long period of time to come. Although media coverage of the league is seemingly a yearlong venture at this point, the regular season consists of only 16 games over a four-month span. Add roughly a month for the playoffs and you have seven months of offseason for desire to build in the massive football fanbase.
I’m convinced that scarcity is a huge part of football’s exponential upward trajectory. When a fan only has to pay attention for three hours per week for less than half the year, there is minimal chance for burnout and boredom.
Attendance-based economics dictate that hockey teams play multiple times per week, of course, but that doesn’t mean the NHL couldn’t benefit from shaving a few tilts off the schedule to keep everyone involved fresh. I don’t see that happening as long as most buildings are full (or nearly so) for a majority of the season, but maybe missing a few weeks of games due to a work stoppage wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
The NBA just went through a similar labor situation last year, leading to a compressed 66-game schedule (instead of 82) after a settlement was reached in late fall. The popularity of the league didn’t decrease at all; if anything, the extended break from pro basketball built up demand and made fans realized they missed the NBA.
But you can’t miss something if it never leaves. If we can assume the NHL won’t lose the entire season like it did eight years ago, the league may benefit from the principle of scarcity in an entertainment marketplace that’s more crowded than ever.