The self-inflicted NHL lockout is claiming lots of victims, from team staff to player paychecks and even NHL veterans who might never play again. But the first casualty that relates directly to what this lockout is really about -- growing revenues and dividing them up -- is the nascent "Discover NHL Thanksgiving Showdown," an attempt to expand U.S. TV viewership habits to earlier in the year.
This year's game would have been just the second edition of what the NHL and its partners hope is a new tradition: getting U.S. sports viewers to watch NHL hockey, in ritual form, earlier in the season than normal. (In the bast, national broadcasts in the States haven't begun until after New Year's Day.)
That's why this year's game would have seen traditional rivals and big draws the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins face off at 1 p.m. in Boston. The inaugural version also pitted TV darlings against each other, with the Bruins and Detroit Red Wings playing to a shootout. In both cases, the idea is to take a firm swing at getting overstuffed Americans to watch hockey the day after Thanksgiving, just like they watch NFL football the day before.
That first game drew just a 1.0 overnight rating -- not overly impressive but up to par with what the NHL on NBC averages for most regular season games.
Which is okay, because that's part of the long-term goal here. The NHL and NBC made a big promotional push for the game, inserting themselves into Thanksgiving traditions like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade with the purpose of putting the NHL on the casual fan's radar at a time when attention to hockey has yet to heat up.
And that's where the game's cancellation and the NHL lockout are in interesting context: Many justifiably cynical observers have predicted the current lockout would never end before Thanksgiving, because NHL teams (particularly U.S.-based ones) can afford to lose games in October and November because that's when they're competing against playoff baseball and NFL football. The NBC national TV schedule itself was to launch with this Black Friday game.
If there is one thing both the league and the NHLPA can agree on in their current labor squabble, it's that both sides benefit by growing league revenues. Canada's dollar remains around parity with the U.S. dollar and the Canadian hockey market is well served. If the NHL and NHLPA long-term goal, and near-term challenge, is developing and cultivating a broader fanbase and TV viewership in the still untapped but lucrative U.S. sports market, then sabotaging sponsors' and TV partners' efforts to do just that is where the lockout really starts to hurt both sides.
Cancel some early fall games that two-thirds of your league feels it can do without, and it's well worth whatever gains the owners' squeeze from the NHLPA in this dispute.
But hurt the corporate partners upon whom your future revenue growth depends? Pretty soon you're talking about real money.