Focus group fallout: When does enough become enough for the NHL?

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The latest PR disaster for the NHL – as if yet another work stoppage wasn’t tarnishing its image enough – came Monday when it was revealed by Deadspin that a focus group had been commissioned by the league to gauge fan reaction to various lockout-related issues.

The focus group – led by well-known political consultant and Republican strategist Frank Luntz – asked participants to, among other things, read lists of statements and answer which ones made them feel most negative about the owners, or which ones were the most persuasive in justifying the lockout, or which ones were most disappointing about the lockout.

The intent of the focus group was obvious: The NHL wanted to know the best way to sell the lockout to the fans.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed to sportsnet.ca that the league regularly does “polling and focus groups on issues impacting the league, as do other sports leagues. It’s part of our normal business practices.”

But most will argue there’s a difference between assembling a focus group for marketing purposes (e.g, “What do you like most about the NHL playoffs?”) and PR purposes.

And while some have tried to justify the league’s use of focus groups, even in this particular case, the overwhelming reaction to the Deadspin story has been negative.

The question is, has it been negative enough to soften the league’s position against the NHLPA and, in turn, help resolve the lockout?

We ask in large part due to the NFL’s experience during its recent referees lockout. In that case, a badly blown call by the replacement officials on Monday Night Football was considered to have embarrassed the league to the point it had no choice but to bring back the regular refs.

Not to suggest NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is taking as much flak for the Deadspin story as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took for the replacement officials. The blown call in the Monday Night Football game was international news.

But Bettman is still taking some serious flak, the Deadspin story just the latest storm of controversy. Jim Devellano’s infamous “cattle” comment was another black eye for the NHL.

Bettman is used to the criticism and he knows it’s part of the job, but at some point enough has to become enough.

Whether we’re at the tipping point yet, or even close to it, is still to be seen.

The NHL and NHLPA are meeting today in Toronto.