Conventional wisdom goes like this: NFL is big, NFL lockout gives other sports a chance to get some attention, NHL steps into the spotlight, everyone falls in love with the fastest sport on earth, and everyone lives happily ever after. There’s no question that an NFL lockout will help get more eyeballs of the general sports fan to focus on hockey at the beginning of next year – just like more eyes would be focused on college football and the NBA (assuming they start their season on time). The NFL dominates today’s sports landscape to such a degree that even a sliver of their portion of the pie would be a marked increase to the NHL’s brand.
However, some folks inside the NHL see a hidden pitfall to the NFL’s labor struggles. From the incomparable Craig Custance over at the Sporting News:
“Labor unrest in professional sports is damaging across the board. I don’t think anyone benefits,” Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke told Sporting News. “There is a fan fatigue factor. They don’t understand why professional athletes would strike, they don’t understand why wealthy owners would lock them out.”
In Burke’s opinion, labor negations gone bad in any sport reflect poorly on all the others. When the NHL collective bargaining agreement expires after next season, the three other major professional sports in the States will have gone through their negotiations and the possible work stoppage that comes with them.
It’s easy to conclude that a Sunday afternoon in which the Flyers and Penguins game is the only sport worth watching on national television is a win for the NHL. But that win wouldn’t necessarily translate to a long-term benefit for the sport of hockey.
“I just think lockouts in sports aren’t good,” Blues GM Doug Armstrong told Sporting News. “I like the sport being the topic and not the business being the topic. If they lock out and miss three or four weeks, is it really going to move the needle on our sport that much? I don’t buy it.”
It’s an interesting point that both Burke and Armstrong point out when talking about the NFL’s labor strife. Most hockey fans look at their sport and simply see an opportunity—but both are correct that there’s a backlash directed at ALL sports when there’s a lockout or strike. There are everyday sports fans – we’re talking about the casual observer who casually enjoys sports, not the season-ticket holding diehards – who will watch football’s problems and see it as a bunch of billionaires fighting with even more millionaires about how to divide up a sum of money that most third-world countries would kill for. It happened when hockey had its problems a few years ago and it happened when baseball had its problems in the 1990s. Whenever it happens, there’s a carry-over effect that goes from “there’s something wrong with football” to “there’s something wrong with sports.” Fans may not be concerned with the potential backlash, but it’s interesting to see that a couple of GMs have thought about it.
Once again, it’s great to see someone like Brian Burke speak out on a subject with such honesty and candor. With the NHL still recovering from the lockout that cost fans the 2004-05 season, the last thing hockey executives want to do is bring attention to a lockout. For some hockey fans, talking about owners and players who can’t agree on a suitable agreement will rip open the healing scars that are finally getting better.
One thing both Burke and Armstrong can probably agree on today—it’s better that it’s the NFL with these problems than the NHL. Hopefully Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr agree as well.