Weekly Obsession: NHL lockout’s biggest casualty may be fan momentum

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 3:12pm

In the week Nashville Predators season ticket holders received their shiny boxes from the team, tickets tucked inside, they learned at least two of those tickets will remain intact, untorn reminders of what never was.

Less than a week after locking its players out, the National Hockey League canceled all September pre-season games.

For Predators fans, that meant no preseason hockey at Bridgestone Arena, the team having just two home exhibition contests, both in September.

That slate of games was the first real casualty of the $3.3 billion staring contest between the NHL and the players’ union, but with the sides still admitting to significant distance and disagreement, it is likely not the last.

Though wrapped in jargony language and often-vituperative rhetoric, the labor dispute is simple: The owners and players are fighting over how to split the league’s record revenues.

Under the collective bargaining agreement, which expired Sept. 15, the players were entitled to 57 percent of revenue. The league’s owners, through Commissioner Gary Bettman, would like to see that number lower. The players, naturally, have little interest in seeing it decrease.

So here we are: A league that has seen unprecedented growth, a new era of healthiness and is entering into a massive TV deal with NBC … isn’t playing games any time soon.

For their part, the Predators are handling the lockout as best they can. The team stopped accepting season ticket payments until a new agreement is signed and games are back on. People who have already paid for their tickets in full will get refunds, plus what Predators officials promise will be aggressive perks.

There will be no layoffs at 501 Broadway, a stark contrast from the season-killing 2004-05 lockout when the Predators, then owned by Craig Leipold, put significant numbers of people out of work.

Outside the confines of the arena, though, a protracted work stoppage will hurt. By positioning the building in the heart of the city’s entertainment district, the city boosted demand at area bars and restaurants. The Predators averaged more than 16,000 fans last season, and the Lower Broad watering holes bank on those visitors, especially on winter weeknights when downtown would otherwise be less-than-crowded.

Mayor Karl Dean expressed concern a lengthy work stoppage would harm the city’s tax coffers.

Metro and the Predators also signed a new lease agreement this summer, and the city is still on the hook for some — though not all — of the incentives agreed to in that plan.

The $1 million annual management fee will be reduced by $8,130 for each game missed. Without 41 regular season games, it’s unlikely — perhaps even impossible — the arena will hit the benchmarks tied to another $2.7 million in incentives. Metro also covers losses of up to roughly $4.5 million. The team has always received all of that money, and without hockey, there’s no reason to think they won’t again.

But the biggest harm to the Predators could come from lost momentum.

The team has experienced strong attendance growth over the past three seasons, and its season-ticket renewal rate, even in a summer of uncertainty, was a record 95 percent.

Hockey fans returned after the lost season, but this is the third work stoppage for the NHL since 1994. At some point, some people will say enough is enough.

The growth of the Predators fan base has been a function of turning casual fans in rabid ones. There is, after all, no zealot like a convert.

But without the constant ritual, a convert can easily become a backslider, returning to a previous life where nights at the rink weren’t a rite.

Hockey may find its die-hards will come back — in fact, the NHL is banking on it — but the novitiates may find something else to do.

4 Comments on this post:

By: joe41 on 9/26/12 at 7:49

C'mon guys, lets get this thing settled and soon.

By: sharko20 on 9/26/12 at 8:02

Yep, fed up. Will want my money returned if the season is lost.

By: BigPapa on 9/28/12 at 8:41

Hockey and basketball should "strike" every year from Oct until January.

By: TITAN1 on 9/28/12 at 12:24

That's right, if BigPapa doesn't like it, it shouldn't happen. Geesh!