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The Hat Trick

A little over 2 months into the a lockout between the National Hockey League and its players, the results of a public opinion poll were published in an editorial in Canada’s The Globe and Mail suggesting that the league’s brand had suffered damage equivalent to or even worse than British Petroleum (BP) following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.

On Sunday, the league and the Players’ Association reached a tentative agreement to end the lockout and begin the 2012-2013 season, but the immediate response from fans was not uniformly enthusiastic. For the generally rabid followers of the fast-paced sport, which doesn’t typically get the same media attention as the other 3 major North American professional sports leagues, the feelings of the moment are summed up by disinterest at one end of the spectrum, and betrayal at the other.

Considering the loyalty and passion of the sport’s fanbase, it doesn’t seem too surprising that Level5 Strategy, the firm behind the research, would suggest that the NHL has truly committed such a serious grievance against its customers. The people who watch the sport on television, buy tickets to games, and fill their homes with merchandise have had their trust in the league severely breached. Following its catastrophic oil spill, BP put in a serious effort to initiate cleanup, pay out damages to affected citizens and businesses, and ultimately agreed to pay the enormous fines that resulted.

It is highly unlikely that the NHL will do anything but move on as if nothing happened at all.

This most recent lockout marked the third under current commissioner Gary Bettman, a figure employed by the league but frequently maligned by the fans. For more than a decade, die hard followers of the sport have called for change, citing Bettman as an ineffective leader, detrimental to the game of hockey. The league is fundamentally a business, focused primarily on creating a quality product to generate revenues, a fact sometimes forgotten or intentionally ignored by the fans, but this latest development and the toll it has taken on the reputability and integrity of the league should be enough for the owners to realize how important the management of that brand truly is.

Many fans will reluctantly return to the rink to watch the game they love, supporting the NHL in spite of the frustration that the lockout has caused. Under Bettman, the league has more than tripled its annual intake of ‘hockey-related revenue,’ and notwithstanding the losses accrued from 3 months off from the regular season, might still be on track to continue growing richer over the next 10 years of the new collective bargaining agreement. All of that success is placed in serious jeopardy, however, should the owners fail to recognize that its customers are the lifeblood of the business, a fundamental truth across all industries. The NHL brand faces a long road back from the damage suffered during the tenure of its current commissioner. It must take measures to win back the trust of the fans, or die.

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