The rhetoric surrounding the ongoing CBA negotiations stepped up another level recently. This time, however, it wasn’t the NHL or NHLPA attempting to win the PR battle. This time it was the fans. There’s talk of revolution in the air: anger, protests, boycotts, and letter-writing campaigns. Slogans like “Occupy NHL,” “Unfollow NHL” and “No Lockout” are spreading on Twitter and Facebook.
Then there’s Janne Makonnen’s perfectly-edited video titled “Together We Can,” urging fans to take action, borrowing the famous speech from the movie Network. Via Peter Finch’s incredible portrayal of Howard Beale, hockey fans are urged to cry out, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
It’s a moving and admirable sentiment, but it’s worth noting that Beale’s emotional diatribes don’t result in anything more than higher television ratings, exploitation by the media, and his eventual death. Sorry, 36-year-old movies don’t get spoiler warnings.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for speaking up as fans and I want the CBA negotiations settled by the start of the season as much as anyone, but the revolutionary rhetoric is misplaced. The various social media movements that have started up have plenty of zeal, but don’t seem to have much of an end game in mind.
Much of the vitriol has been directed towards Gary Bettman and the NHL owners, treating them as if they were a government to be overthrown. They’re not. The owners are simply men who own businesses and Bettman is their employee. League revenues have soared and Bettman is currently hard at work to get the owner’s a larger slice of those revenues. In all likelihood, he will succeed. There’s no reason for the owners to be unhappy with the job Bettman is doing.
In any case, if you’re going to overthrow a government, you need to have a plan for how to replace that government. If Bettman were fired, the fans would have no say in who replaces him. Another slick-talking lawyer would take his place, spout the same or similar rhetoric, and continue to work to increase league revenues and ensure the owners get the largest chunk of those revenues.
The only action that has any potential to attract the owners’ attention, then, is to remove some of those revenues. That appears to be the goal of “Occupy NHL Store,” “You Have Two Weeks,” and, to a lesser extent, “Unfollow NHL.” The goal of Occupy NHL Store appears to be to stage a sit-in, sit-outside, or sit-nearby the official NHL Store in New York City. Unfortunately, there appears to be no one actually participating in this protest, leaving it as just a trending hashtag and a cool idea.
You Have Two Weeks is a bit better organized, with a spare, yet functional website explaining that their goal is to boycott not the NHL and its teams, but the many companies that are also owned by the NHL owners. Unfollow NHL, for their part, is mainly aimed at the social media side of the equation, calling for fans to unfollow the NHL, its teams, and its players on Twitter, unlike the NHL on Facebook, and to stop visiting the NHL’s various websites, but their “manifesto” also includes boycotting NHL merchandise and tickets.
This, at least, makes a certain amount of sense. Protesting doesn’t, simply because there really isn’t anything to protest. You’re a customer who isn’t happy with a product or, at least, those who provide the product. So take your business elsewhere. If the NHL and NHLPA are so concerned with the almighty dollar, take the almighty dollar away.
There’s only one issue. At this moment, the buy-in from hockey fans to these boycott movements is negligible. The average hockey fan doesn’t seem to be “mad as hell.” The average hockey fan seems to be mildly upset and a little bored with the lack of progress in the negotiations. Maybe that will change once October rolls around and a lockout actually begins.
As of right now, the NHL has 2,521,874 “Likes” on Facebook. Unfollow NHL has 464. The NHL has 1,381,337 followers on Twitter. Unfollow NHL has 2,406, Occupy NHL Store has 319, You Have Two Weeks has 214, and No Hockey Lockout has 521. To be fair, these Twitter accounts have barely been in existence for a month, if that, but the planned “social media protest” scheduled for September 15th won’t have much of an effect if the number of people participating is less than one percent of the NHL’s total followers.
Losing a few thousand Twitter followers won’t cause the NHL any panic and it certainly won’t make the CBA negotiations move any more quickly.
It has to then transition from social media into the real world, where it might have a chance of affecting league revenues. But if a few thousand is a small number on Twitter, it’s even tinier outside of the internet. No Hockey Lockout has an actual protest planned outside of the NHL headquarters in New York, to be held on September 15th. If it is well-attended, I’m sure it will be noticed, though I suspect Bettman will spin it as being further evidence of the NHL’s “passionate fans,” while Donald Fehr will spin it as the players being the valiant heroes fighting for the fans’ desire to watch hockey.
But in order for these protests and boycotts to have any effect, the number of people involved has to be huge. The average attendance per game last season was 17,455 league wide. NBC averaged 1.57 million viewers per game for their regular season coverage of the NHL. The Stanley Cup Final averaged 2.98 million viewers per game, while 3.47 million watched the Winter Classic.
CBC had 1.13 million viewers of their own for the Winter Classic and averaged 2.67 million viewers for the Stanley Cup Final. Those numbers are also way down for both NBC and CBC from the previous season. For the Canucks/Bruins final, CBC averaged 6.15 million viewers.
A few thousand fans, even hardcore fans who purchase season tickets and a lot of merchandise, are not going to be taking a massive bite out of those numbers.
The fact is that hockey fans are not a union and they’re definitely not united. No one is going to be creating a picket line outside of their hometown arena and calling replacement fans who attend games “scabs.” At the moment, these movements are all anger with no outlet. The goal appears to be to let the NHL and NHLPA know that the fans are “mad as hell and [they're] not going to take it anymore,” but the voices are too few to be heard.
Once this is all over, nothing will have changed for the fans. Ticket prices won’t have changed. Merchandise prices won’t have changed. There will be some new intricacies in the CBA for the bloggers and media to puzzle over and capgeek.com will have to make some adjustments, but for the fan who just wants to watch hockey, it will be there just like it was before. Ultimately, the CBA negotiations don’t affect the fans at all beyond there being fewer NHL games to enjoy.
So you’ll complain, raise your voices, cry out, “We’re mad as hell!” Some of you may even follow through on your threats to stop watching the NHL. The vast majority will sigh, say “Thank goodness that’s over with,” and watch the games.
Am I being too cynical? Perhaps. But I think I’m just being realistic about the chances of success for a social media movement that lacks substance and sufficient numbers to be effective.
And for those who do follow through on their threats to stop watching the NHL, what happens when your favourite team, the team you have been following all your life, makes it to the playoffs? What happens when they get through to the second round or the Conference Finals? Will it matter to you then that the CBA negotiations dragged on during the off-season, forcing a lockout? Or will you be watching for one of those magical moments highlighted in Makonnen’s stirring video?
Can you handle being a fan of hockey and not a fan of the NHL?
It’s easy to join a social media protest. It’s easy to say that you’re “mad as hell.” It’s easy to follow a twitter account, like a Facebook page, or sign an online petition. It’s a lot harder to follow through in the real world.
You say you want a revolution? Get serious.