Analysis: Winning Stanley Cup may be easier than winning back fans

Mon Jan 7, 2013 4:30pm EST
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By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - With a new labor deal in place the National Hockey League (NHL) was back in business on Monday, but some teams may find it easier to hoist a Stanley Cup than win back disillusioned fans.

Having dragged fatigued fans through a fourth work stoppage in 20 years, most recently a 113-day lockout that ended with a tentative deal on Sunday, NHL officials and players are unsure what reception awaits them when the season begins next week.

"The face painters are going to come back, they have never really abandoned the sport," David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute, told Reuters. "What the NHL has lost is the ability to cultivate casual fans.

"The last couple of years, with the momentum the league had built, I thought they really began to cultivate those casual fans and I think the work to be done is to win these fans back, who for the last many months the NHL has been out of sight, out of mind."

Fans of the NHL are often described as North America's most avid but the league has regularly put that loyalty to the test in recent years as it sought concessions from players while working out new collective bargaining agreements.

As a result, the NHL has lost 2,365 games to labor disputes over the last two decades, more than North America's three other major sports leagues combined.

The hardcore fans have grown numb to the lockout noise, ready to return whenever a deal is struck, but it is the casual observers who have already moved on that the league must now work to entice back.

"Hockey fans are used to it, they've lived through it many times before," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and head of Pilson Communications.   Continued...