Time to drop the puck: what the NHL needs to do

The National Hockey League lockout, the NHL’s third lockout in 19 years ended after 113 days early Sunday morning when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr announced the two sides have reached an agreement on a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement. The good news for hockey fans the NHL will return next week, the bad news there has been irreparable damage done to the NHL’s brand, whether the business returns to levels the league enjoyed before the lockout remains to be seen.

In the coming days the NHL and its member teams will announce a series of ideas to help entice fans back. The NHL has be very proactive in reaching out to fans along with their corporate and broadcast partners – simply saying sorry and expecting hockey fans to forgive and forget won’t work. Three protracted lockouts in 19 years, there are few reasons other than a love of the sport as to why NHL fans should embrace the league when it returns.

Among the decisions the NHL should make:

Training camps will begin in the next few days. Logic suggests each NHL team will play at least two exhibition games, one home and one away. Make these games free, giveaway the tickets. Encourage fans attending these games to bring a non-perishable food item for the local food bank, allowing teams to begin to reconnect with both their local fan base and local communities.

Tickets for all home games played in January should be priced at 50% of face value. While the final details as to when the schedule starts hasn’t been settled, the league wants a 48 or 50 game schedule to start on either Thursday, January 17 or Saturday, January 19. The league should treat the January games as a gift to fans. Half price tickets with people still paying holiday bills will help send both that message and sell tickets.

Season ticket holders get a free ticket for every ticket they have purchased for January games or a credit towards tickets for the 2013-14 NHL season (the 50% ticket discount doesn’t apply to season ticket holders who have already purchased tickets). Season ticket holders are the lifeline of every NHL franchise, they will be forced to support the NHL regardless of how they feel for the reminder of the 2012-13 season. NHL teams will be contacting their current season ticket holders regarding tickets for the 2013-14 NHL season in the next few weeks. These “shareholders” are upset and they have no choice but to attend scheduled games for the current season, regardless of the date. The NHL needs to focus on those they want to get into arenas (the 50% off group) and those that are being forced to attend games (season ticket holders).

Each NHL team must price between 500 and 1,500 tickets at $10 each for the remainder of the 2012-13 NHL regular season. The NBA used this tactic when their 1998-99 lockout ended on January 20, 1999 and the NBA played a 50 game schedule. Many NBA teams still have tickets priced at $10 even though the initial concept was to offer the $10 tickets for the lockout shortened season. The $10 includes all taxes and any service charges. Sports teams love using family packages to bring people to games. Those packages include tickets, soft drinks and a hot dog. Teams can offer that if they wish but the packages generally don’t interest most families.

Wave ticket surcharges for the lockout shortened regular season games. Many NHL teams have their own in-house ticketing companies that collect surcharges that are nothing more than an added cost to buying tickets and an added revenue source for teams fans are forced to pay. For the remainder of the 2012-13 NHL regular season the price that is on the ticket is what the consumer will pay for the ticket.

This suggestion was first made by ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun. Make the NHL Center Ice package free for the remainder of the 2012-13 NHL regular season and playoff schedule. The Center Ice package offers hockey fans a chance to watch all games broadcast outside of their market. This generates some revenue for the NHL; however the gesture will not be forgotten by NHL fans if the package is free for the remainder of the shortened season. It also helps to better showcase the sport.

The NHL Center Ice package should also be free online for the remainder of the 2012-13 regular season and playoff schedule. The NHL’s cable partner the NBC Sports Network is in 80% of American homes, good but not great. The NHL is always talking about how tech savvy NHL fans are, offering the NHL Center Ice package online embraces that thought and allows disenfranchised NHL fans to follow the sport.

“Now that we have games on the schedule we just need some fans,” Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said in email on Sunday, hours after a tentative agreement was reached between the two sides. “I know an apology doesn’t make it all better, but it’s a place to start.

“I’m sorry and I hope that fans will forgive us for the role we played in this lockout. We will show up ready to play if they want to come to the rink and watch.”

Miller was one of the more outspoken NHL players during the lockout often being very critical of the NHL and in particular Gary Bettman.

In the coming days NHL owners and team captains in each respective market need to make a series of joint media appearances were they not only apologize for the lockout but jointly and together take responsibility for the lockout. The finger pointing has ended, the daggers being tossed at both Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr will end, it’s time to make it clear to hockey fans both the management and the personal side in this labor battle were wrong to have not settled their issues months ago. Both sides must share the blame and move forward collectively together in the coming weeks for the good of the game.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom