If you briefly run a Twitter search of fans mentioning the NHL’s account, you’ll come across one of two things. The first is groups of fans who seem excited that the league will be up and running soon, the second is groups of fans who feel like the NHL should give them something for free.
Well, they’re probably right to a certain extent.
The NHL doesn’t necessarily owe the fan much except the game. The reason why lots of fans were angry is that they generally want to consume hockey content: lots of hockey content. The simple daily routine of checking the standings at night or watching TV highlights of games are just so familiar and ingrained. I’m mostly pleased that the lockout being over later this week will mean the top story on the nightly sports shows won’t include a feature of Doug MacLean talking about the problems of the previous collective agreement, the one he wouldn’t have gotten fired over had he understood it.
But it’s content that matters, and for most fans, it’s watching a game or discussing the league or following the statistics that keeps us enthralled. The percentage of hockey fans that actually go to games is probably pretty slim, particularly in places like Toronto and Vancouver where an NHL ticket will generally cost you your first born.
Not necessarily as a token of kindness, but providing fans with content could be a good way to bring a few more casual fans back to the game. For the die-hards, they’ll most certainly keep consuming. It seems weird to protest the inability to consume a product by not consuming even further. This is why the NHL didn’t have to take any boycott threats seriously. Fans will be back regardless, the general proof being that lockout updates did way more traffic for a hockey blog than posts about minor or junior or European leagues. If Bob’s Burgers went off the air, I would not compensate by watching new episodes of The Simpsons. I could watch that crap at any time, and it would never replace the half hour oasis of awful Sunday programming that is Bob’s Burgers.
The NHL could mask a stellar advertising campaign coming out of the lockout as goodwill by offering NHL GameCenter Live for free. It makes more sense than offering Center Ice as a token of appreciation. Some fans don’t have cable, I’d expect far fewer don’t have a high-speed Internet connection.
The Internet has changed how we consume media. A subscription-based video service with revenues shared amongst 30 NHL teams brings the league closer to financial parity as well as improve the fan experience. For a year or so, the NHL ought to make this free as they improve the website, until it gets to the point where people are going to start wanting to pay for it. Currently, the NHL’s revenues from its website apparently do get shared amongst the teams, but it’s not a substantial enough drop in the bucket to be immune to an overhaul.
Back in 2001, Major League Baseball invested $1-million per team over four years in the creation of the online arm of the league, called “MLB Advanced Media”. It was a huge success, now in the business of not only streaming games and offering live updates on scores and stats, but bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. In 2011, the number was $620M, which gets re-distributed evenly amongst the clubs. If the NFL’s revenue sharing success comes from its foray into national television before any other sport, MLB has the leg-up on other organizations by having such developed advanced media software years before the rest are scratching the surface. On advanced media alone, MLB shares twice the revenue of the NHL’s entire program, pegged at about $150M last season plus $200M in commitments as part of the new CBA.
The NHL faces two challenges to bringing in new fans. This is quality of distribution products as well as accessibility of those products. MLB Advanced Media last season made the decision to provide its subscription app for free with an MLB TV account. This should have cost the network 100,000 subscribers who otherwise wouldn’t buy MLB TV. What it really did was provide a greater incentive for users to buy its At Bat app that streams games and radio on smart phones and tablets.
Making the game widely available, but also easier to consume, would be the benefit to fans. I think laying the groundwork for GameCenter Live, which is powered by MLB Advanced Media but is by almost every account, a much inferior product. My own experiences with GameCenter (I don’t have my own account) are buggy and beset with random logouts and with the app constantly buffering. The iPad version was prone to crashing, a feature I never experienced with a season of At Bat.
In the end, I don’t know what the NHL really owes its fans after sitting out a half season, but they could go a long way towards ensuring a more stable league with much more revenue sharing options if they got on board and improved their website’s streaming capabilities, and updated their apps. I’m not holding my breath.
Also, in a completely unrelated show of goodwill, Gary Bettman should never touch the Stanley Cup again. My idea for a few years has been the captain of the defending champion come out and present the Cup to the winning franchise, much like they do at the Masters. Bettman comes off as some sort of sociopath who appreciates the abuse when he gets booed. I’d rather trophy presentations, Hall of Fame inductions and the NHL draft not be about him.