Last Sunday morning, I awoke to a flurry of activity on my Facebook page as fellow hockey fans rejoiced that the 113-day NHL lockout had finally ended. Elsewhere in the social media realm, fans’ reactions reflected happiness, but also bitterness, anger or apathy. My initial elation soon subsided as I reflected on the tumultuous three-month ordeal that held our national pastime—and its fans—hostage. Characterized by fighting, name-calling, mistrust and refusal to compromise, the lockout became a sport of its own—but fans were not amused. To add insult to injury, the deal reached on January 6 is significantly similar to the offer on the table on December 6, which fans remember as the day their hopes were built up and dashed dramatically in a press conference.
Indeed, the prevailing consensus is that the lockout was unnecessarily long and dirty, and neither side emerged from the negotiations a winner. Similarly, with alienated fans wondering what this was all for, neither the players nor the owners succeeded at winning the battle for their hearts and minds. Continuous bickering over billions of dollars didn’t resonate with fans who believed that they were suffering for what they perceived as greed, arrogance and selfishness. Both sides stuck to their key messages, but fans were no longer listening. By the time the lockout ended, neither the NHL nor the NHLPA could break the stalemate and initiate its resolution. Instead, credit is largely attributed to mediator Scot Beckenbaugh, who managed to broker a deal before another full season of hockey was lost for fans.
Judging from the mood among Canadian hockey fans, it is clear that much damage has been done to the relationship between NHL hockey (both the NHL and PA) and its fans as a result of the lockout. But what does this mean? And what should be done?
Like many others, I don’t believe there will be major behavioural fallout (i.e. a substantial number of fans will stop watching and attending games) in Canadian and American cities where hockey fan bases are established. However, just because fans may not boycott NHL games in droves, this doesn’t mean that nothing should be done to mend fences. PR pros know that the success of any organization rests solely on the strength of its relationships with stakeholders, defined by trust, respect and aligning words with actions. The NHL exists for and because of its fans, and hence is accountable to them. During the lockout their behaviour sent a clear message to fans that their interests were being ignored, which can have long-term repercussions on the reputation of the NHL. Let’s not forget that this is the third time in 18 years fans have lost hockey games due to labour disputes. This time, with the proliferation of social media, millions of fans have made use of new communication channels to unleash a firestorm of anger and frustration towards the league.
So how can the NHL rebuild its relationship with fans and mend the damage to its reputation? It will likely be easier for the players moving forward, as they reiterate their key message that they never wanted a lockout in the first place and pledge to give fans the best hockey experience they can. Several players have already apologized, recognizing the disservice done to fans and promising to “play their hearts out” for the upcoming 48-game season.
However, the ownership side of the league faces a much greater challenge. Last Wednesday, Gary Bettman offered an apology to the players, fans and partners of the NHL. The public apology has long been a staple of PR and reputation management. Recently, Apple’s Tim Cook provided an exemplary case study in public apologies through his full letter to customers after the Maps debacle. Cook’s apology was successful because it was swift, direct, took responsibility for the mistake and accepted the consequences. Furthermore, by directing customers to Apple’s competitors while the company worked towards correcting the mistake, he added further credibility to the apology by demonstrating his sincerity and confidence in the Apple brand to win them back.
However, unlike Cook and Apple, both the NHL and Bettman himself have a highly tarnished public image, which heavily undermines the credibility of his apology. Bettman recognized that the league has a long way to go in mending its relationship with fans, saying that, “The National Hockey League has a responsibility to earn back your trust and support, whether you watch one game or every game. And that effort begins today.” Afterwards, fans immediately began denouncing the apology and called for Bettman’s resignation, underscoring the public sentiment that words are not enough this time. Although apologizing was an important first step, the NHL needed to support its words with actions that were meaningful to fans.
By the time training camps opened yesterday, several teams had announced measures to win back fans, ranging from discounted tickets and merchandise to free parking and admission for children 14 years old and younger at four home games. Judging from the hundreds of fans who attended training camps across North America to support their favourite teams, it appears that fans are welcoming NHL hockey back despite the bitterness lingering from the lockout. More than anything, I think this speaks to the strength of the product itself, as fans still crave professional hockey and this has dominated over hard feelings from the lockout.
However, it is doubtful that repairing its reputation will be a short-term endeavor for the NHL. Rebuilding trust is not a quick or easy process. If the NHL’s reputation manages to weather this storm, fans need to be assured that their loyalty is not being taken for granted this time. I don’t think short term measures such as discounted tickets will accomplish this; rather, if the organization is to rebuild trust with fans, the most meaningful action it can take will be to avoid work stoppage during future bargaining, proving that they are keeping the fans’ interests top of mind.