On Wednesday, the third NHL work stoppage in 20 years turns 74 days old, having already resulted in the cancellation of 422 regular season games through Dec. 14, the Winter Classic and the 2013 All-Star Game. The dispute centers on how to divide the league’s revenue, which reached $3.3 billion last season, while honoring existing contracts. Negotiations between the league and players’ union have been fruitless, and Monday the two sides agreed to meet with federal mediators.
Whether involving a neutral third party will help create traction remains to be seen, but as the lockout drags on, fans’ loyalty to their sport is becoming a frayed trust.
“The league has become known for lying to its fans, to its sponsors,” said Ed O’Hara, senior partner of New York-based SME Branding, which helped devise the strategy for the NHL eight years ago and still counts the league among its clients.
“I don’t know how you come back from a prolonged stoppage a second time because it is unprecedented,” O’Hara said. “Brands are built on promises. In this case, the promised experiences of seeing the greatest athletes in the world. That’s all gone now.”
Of the four major North American sports leagues, the NHL has lost more games to labor disputes in the past 20 years than any other at 2,120, including games axed from the current season. While hockey is known for having one of the most dedicated fan bases in all of professional sports, the frequency at which the NHL loses games to labor disputes is enough to dishearten even the diehards.
Justin Valentine, 27, grew up a Capitals fan in Prince George’s County but his family could only afford to attend one or two games a year. He made purchasing season tickets a priority as soon as he could accommodate the costs as an adult and has plenty of fond memories – including proposing to his wife in the penalty box at Verizon Center — but the repeated lockouts have soured his outlook. He is considering giving up his tickets if the NHL loses another season.
“Never make someone a priority if they’re only willing to make you an option,” said Valentine, a tattoo artist in Severn and five-year season-ticket holder. “I feel like [Capitals owner] Ted [Leonsis] has made me an option, like he’s taking fans for granted. Those thousands of dollars could easily go toward another expense for my family.”
For many fans, feeling undervalued or marginalized by the labor dispute weighs into their decision as much as being able to budget the costs of tickets. Capitals’ season ticket prices have increased each of the past five seasons; they were slated between $30-345 per game for 2012-13.