Paul over at Kukla's Korner has asked for our thoughts on the perception of the NHL coming into the new season. Honestly, it's a pretty big task, as it's something I haven't spent much time thinking about. I'm not a 'big picture' kind of guy, more the "lose the trees for the insects living in the bark" kind of guy. I know how I perceive the NHL right now, which is pretty positively. But, living in a place that is the epitome of Not-Hockey Country (North Central Florida) I really don't have any feel for the kind of buzz or non-buzz happening out there.
My gut feeling, however, is similar to Ben Wright's in that interest in the game in a great number of markets is stronger than it was pre-lockout. Other markets without a strong hockey presence (those would be the ones Canadians keep saying need to be contracted) will proabably suffer coming out of the gate, but (in the case of Nashville in particular) the franchises with strong teams will recover pretty quickly. At the same time, though, attendance may be up but revenues will be lower or, at best, flat as most ticket prices have been cut, sometimes drastically in Buffalo's case. The tough sells are going to be the places with winning traditions who couldn't draw pre-lockout *cough* like New Jersey. *cough*
Paul also asked for some comments on the new marketing campaign, and frankly, I haven't seen enough of it to have an opinion at this point. From the response over at HFBoards, though, the hardcore fans think it stinks, which is probably a good contrarian indicator, in my opinion.
The media's perception of the NHL has been largely dominated by ESPN's (you really don't want to know what I call ESPN in polite company, it's pretty Un-PC) derisive attitude toward the sport, and the disassociation with them will not help the average American Football Fan to change his mind, as that is where they get a lot of their information. Expect even less coverage on ESPN now that they have no advertising dollars riding on pimping the league. Going the hard route of building a new fan base on a new network is going to take time to see results.
So far, though, I've been impressed with the way the Sabres have been dealing with the press. Sabres.com has multiple video and audio interviews available each day post-game/practice. Both the players and Lindy Ruff have been putting effort into their comments, moreso than previously. I think they understand the importance of rebuilding a relationship with both the fans and the media. From a pure marketing standpoint Martin Biron is gold. He's tremendously charismatic and affable (My wife thinks he's absolutely adorable, btw)/ It's too bad he isn't quite star material on the ice. The coverage at the Buffalo News has markedly improved since training camp opened and Toni Lydman was acquired. Coming out of the gate 0-5 however will put the kibosh on the pretty damn fast. Season ticket sales are already higher than they were in 2003-04, not by much, mind you, but it's a start.
All in all, everyone involved in this sport at this level needed the kind of break we got. The players, the coaches, the owners, the fans.... everyone. But, that said, we are heading into uncertain economic times and the NHL may have an extremely steep hill to climb growth-wise because I expect discretionary funds to dry up around the U.S. Making new friends/fans is going to have to come from the ground up, with a superior bang for the buck. In my house, the NHL is going to have to compete with my World of Warcrack addiction and I'm a hardcore hockey guy.