I've gone quiet during the NHL Lockout. Hockey hasn't taken a backseat, but the NHL, the Oilers and writing have. I've been passing the time - it's not so much passing the time as it is a lifestyle change - with a cornucopia of activities. Since training camp was officially cancelled I have: cut, hand-split and stacked more than a cord of fire wood; watched much more NCAA hockey; read eleven books, finished a sweet, hand-painted custom paint job on my golf clubs, cleared out a couple of years of unneeded junk from the basement and garage, designed an entire set of science experiments for my kids (crush a can with air!), officially launched NHLNumbers and started an ad sales campaign, and on the less productive side, spent a bunch of time sampling Oktoberfests and winter seasonals.
I've done all of this rather than devoting 20-30 hours a week watching and writing about the Oilers and the NHL. And you know what? I don't miss the NHL at all. And I'm not alone.
My first thought was that it was easier not to miss the NHL when the team you've cheered for four decades has been the worst in the league since the last lockout, but in speaking with fans and writers who follow other teams, that's not the case. In fact, a number of people I've chatted with can't figure out how they might fit the NHL into their newly-productive life, should the NHL return in it's current form. And it's this attitude that should scare the pants off of the collective NHL ownership. If the NCAA, books and seasonal beers get a higher financial priority in my wallet and firewood and science get a higher priority on my schedule, the NHL is going to lose out on previously guaranteed revenue.
If I'm not alone, and that revenue can't be replaced on a one-for-one basis (and new fans and markets certainly aren't clamoring to get in on the NHL action) the league is going to have to cut back. A drop in revenue means lower salaries for the players, smaller profits for the owners that make money, smaller revenue sharing for the owners that aren't making money and, if the revenue doesn't return relatively quickly, the contraction of 2-6 teams.
If the NHL is losing the attention of devoted fans, how does the casual fan hang on? Sure, the NHL could ask referees to call the game as the rules dictate, like they did in 2005-06, and the game could get more exciting, like it did in the first couple of years back, and they could attract new fans again. But they already grabbed the new fans - are there more for the taking? Are they going to be gullible enough to start cheering for a league that's cancelled a season and a significant portion of another in eight years?
Take a look at television ratings trends for North American sports: NFL, MLB, NBA, NASCAR, and now MLS are all outpacing the NHL. The dollars and time that would've gone to the NHL are going to those leagues now. Each casual (and gullible) fan that the NHL desperately needs who enjoys their alternative sport experience and chooses their new league over the NHL is additional revenue lost - revenue that won't be reclaimed unless it's a new NBA fan, because that league is just as messy as the NHL.
This isn't intended to be a "sky is falling" note, just an observation that the NHL is now alienating parts of the core fanbase, possibly permanently. The NHL will be back, but it's going to be a different league.
And now I have to go finish that rocket mass heater design for the basement.