While hockey season is back in full swing after the NHL lockout, longtime Edmonton Oilers fan Edward Wright has nearly abandoned the game he once obsessed over.
Feeling jilted by months of backroom negotiations between the owners and players, Wright said he wanted to send a clear message to the hockey league. So, he packed up his Oilers merchandise and shipped it off to an NHL blog in protest, asking that they donate it to charity.
He also scrapped a high-priced hockey package from his local cable provider and cut back on visits to team blogs he used to frequent. As far as Wright is concerned, the NHL has lost one die-hard hockey fan.
“My reaction was borne from disappointment,” Wright said of the battle between the league and players over hockey-related revenues which lasted for nearly four months.
“I was pretty vocal amongst my peers about the fact that I was part of the problem. I was contributing to it by going out of my way to spend more on the NHL than was really necessary.”
Wright said he has become “disenchanted” with the NHL league and its teams.
And he’s not alone, according to a study released Wednesday which says the lockout has left many Canadian hockey fans feeling slighted by the NHL, a factor that has pulled down its overall brand value.
Consultancy firm Brand Finance, which tracks the clout of brand names in the real world, estimates that the NHL will lose nearly US$328.2 million in brand value in 2013 as fans spend less money on hockey in the coming year.
Much of the fallout comes from casual hockey fans who have decided to look elsewhere for their entertainment, said Brand Finance managing director Edgar Baum. He said the hockey league has offered what some people deemed too few incentives to return to arenas.
“It is possible to recover (the brand value), but we’re not seeing any indication that’s going to happen,” Baum said.
The brand value report was coupled with a survey of Canadian hockey fans completed by its partner firm Level 5, which showed that 41 per cent of casual hockey fans are feeling “more negatively about the sport” after the most recent lockout.
“The difference this time is that they are going back with a big chip on their shoulder,” said David Kincaid, managing partner and CEO of Level 5.
“The chip on the shoulder becomes interesting when next year’s season tickets come forward, when the indulgence of the rush back to the game is taken care of, and we’re back to business as usual.”
Kincaid said casual hockey fans who were surveyed say they plan to cut back on season tickets, branded merchandise and watch sports packages they bought from local cable and satellite providers less.
The study seems to contradict recent evidence that Canadian fans are more rabid about hockey than they’ve been in years. When the NHL returned to the ice in mid-January, the games pulled in record viewership numbers for CBC’s televised coverage.
Hockey Night in Canada delivered its best viewership numbers by a long shot last month, coming in 16 per cent higher than the previous record set in 2007. The program drew 3.32 million viewers on Jan. 19, partly on the lure of the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs playing out their rivalry. Broadcast numbers for hockey have remained solid for weeks.
But comments that were collected in the survey could be a harbinger of troubles to come.
“We haven’t seen negative emotions attached to a brand like this since the BP oil spill,” Kincaid said.
The survey found that of hockey fans polled who consider themselves “very passionate,” about 39 per cent say they’re likely to spend less money on season tickets next year. Only nine per cent say they’ll increase their season ticket spending, while 52 per cent will stay the same.
On hockey-branded merchandise, about 37 per cent say they plan to spend less on merchandise, while 11 per cent say they’ll spend more.
For subscription-based sports channels, about 35 per cent of respondents plan to watch fewer games, while 13 per cent say they will likely increase how much they watch hockey.
Viewers are split on watching CBC network programming of Hockey Night in Canada. An equal number say they’ll decrease as well as increase watching the show, at 23 per cent.
The Level 5 survey of 2,074 Canadians was conducted between Jan. 11 and 14, about a week before the shortened hockey season began. The sampling was representative of the general population, including religions, gender and ethnicity, and both English and French languages, the firm said.
The NHL has tried to calm disgruntled fans since the games resumed, offering up discounted tickets, free snacks and sports memorabilia giveaways. The league also took out a full-page advertisements in newspapers last month apologizing to fans and encouraging them to return to the games.
Kincaid suggested that if that’s the extent of the NHL’s efforts, then they should expect further discontent from fans.
“For a brand that is laden with negative emotional attributes… until those negatives are dealt with, it doesn’t matter how differentiated you are,” he said.
For Wright, who once lived for the puck hitting the ice, hours once dedicated to hockey have been replaced with other activities.
“It was an excuse to be social with a group of guys I like to hang out with,” he said. “Now we’re hanging out doing different things.”
Instead of watching a double-whammy of Oilers games this past weekend, Wright was on the ski slopes with friends.
“Turns out we didn’t need hockey to bind us together.”