Puck Labor Day
Yesterday Americans celebrated the achievements of workers: those faceless, unsung heroes adding sprigs and sprockets to various widgets on the assembly lines of material progress and achievement (or something). We proponents of free markets have strong feelings on the matter; we tend to believe the modern labor movement has been detrimental to economic progress. But as a September 15 deadline approaches for completion of a new collective bargaining agreement between the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association, and a lockout looms large just eight years after a season-destroying lockout, hockey fans in 30 North American cities are learning a hard economic lesson about labor disputes. While the struggle between labor and management dominates the spotlight, consumers (fans in this case) go largely unnoticed. Contrary to what Harrison Mooney at Yahoo!’s popular Puck Daddy blog writes, hockey fans should leverage the tools at their disposal to insert themselves into the discussion.
Generally, the economic principles underlying a work stoppage as the result of a labor dispute, along with its effects on consumers, are relatively simple: as a work stoppage at a firm begins, supply of a good becomes restricted and prices rise because demand remains unchanged (unless, fearing a diminished supply, consumers go on a consumption binge, increasing aggregate demand in the short run — in which case prices rise even faster). Those higher market prices give competitor firms producing the same good (even lower quality versions of the same good) an incentive to meet the unsatisfied demand, and new profit margins allow the competitor firm to acquire additional human capital and technology to achieve better economies of scale, helping them to compete in the long run against the firm suffering a stoppage.
This scenario doesn’t translate easily to professional sports, least of all to professional ice hockey — though there are some similarities. If the parties fail to reach an agreement and a lockout occurs, consuming hockey-related entertainment would become cost-prohibitive for American fans. Some pros would head to Europe: all-star New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist may play in the Swedish Elite League in the event of an NHL work stoppage, or all-star Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin may play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. Unless roster sizes or the number of players on the ice abroad increases, however, European hockey franchises won’t necessarily achieve economies of scale in human capital (though having NHL stars on the roster would invariably reduce their marketing costs). That says nothing of the fact that, as soon as the NHL, the best hockey league in the world, reopened for business, Lundqvist, Malkin, et al. would conclude their European vacations with haste.
The prices consumers would face during an NHL lockout would be astronomical: (a) add the price of an international plane ticket, the price of international accommodations, the price of a hockey ticket, and the opportunity cost of time off from work, and that’s one new set of prices a consumer faces; (b) add the opportunity costs of jail time and/or legal penalties/fines for viewing pirated video feeds of international competition over the Internet, and that’s another price a consumer faces; or (c) do not consume professional hockey at all. In no way is an NHL lockout good for the average fan.
Nor would minor league hockey in North America bear the demand for NHL hockey; the quality of play is lower, the stars are lesser known, and the arenas are smaller and less accessible. Washington Capitals fans would need to drive to Hershey, Pennsylvania to see their American Hockey League affiliate Bears, and Nashville Predators fans like me would need to fly to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to see our AHL affiliate Admirals.
But fans aren’t hapless, and shouldn’t become feckless.
In April 2009, hockey fans across North America participated in the first-ever multi-city “NHL Tweetup” to ring in that year’s Stanley Cup quarterfinals. The events, which were organized by and for fans, featured food and drinks, laughs, player and staff appearances, and even raffles for signed memorabilia that teams donated. The Internet made these concurrent events possible. NHLTweetup.com — a site branded, designed, developed, and launched by fans — served (and continues to serve) as a clearinghouse for information about individual meet ups, as well as being a photo and video repository for event organizers to upload media of their cities’ events. The #NHLTweetup hashtag on Twitter pointed fans to information they needed to participate. And the Internet has become an integral part of the fan experience, thanks to broad social and mobile adoption across 30 NHL teams and the League office in New York.
As a guy who lives at the intersection of technology and political/issue advocacy, and as the guy who in 2009 was Nashville’s NHL Tweetup organizer, I’m a firm believer that hockey fans should harness Internet technologies and insert ourselves into this labor dispute. We didn’t have Twitter during the last round of CBA negotiations. YouTube was, at best, in its infancy. Facebook was exclusive to people with a Harvard.edu email address.
So while Harrison Mooney at Yahoo!’s Puck Daddy blog writes, “Any attempt to force the hand of the NHL and NHLPA in these negotiations is a fool’s errand,” I say, “Let’s give them a run for their money.” When Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren attempted to sign restricted free agent Nashville Predators captain and franchise player Shea Weber to a $110 million offer sheet this summer, local hockey blogs exploded with “what ifs,” and team ownership responded by matching the heavily front-loaded offer sheet, crediting fans and sponsors for an outpouring of both support and cautionary rhetoric. When the United States Congress considered the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act, floodgates of online criticism forced members to quickly reconsider their positions and scuttle their bills. While establishing a first-order causal connection between online advocacy and offline action still eludes even the most sophisticated of social scientists, the Internet has, to a degree, begun to become the democratizing force that Democratic strategist Joe Trippi once prophesied.
It may be true, as Mooney writes, that “nothing [a hockey fan does] will stop” a lockout from occurring. But that doesn’t mean that hockey fans shouldn’t channel their energy and outrage over another lockout just eight years after the last one — eight years during which fans have invested their hearts, minds, and dollars in the least popular of American pro sports, simply because they love the game — into productive channels.
So if you’re a hockey fan on Twitter, tweet. Tweet @NHL and @NHLPA, and use the #nolockout hashtag. If you’re a hockey fan with a blog, write. Link to this editorial. Find out what fans in your city are saying. Report on what they have to say. Send links to and excerpts of your pieces to your nearby NHL team’s media relations staff. Send them to the League office in New York (I suggest the “NHL.com feedback — Non-technical questions” subject heading). Send them to the NHLPA. If you have a camera, or a laptop with a camera, record a short video about why you think a lockout would be bad for the sport of hockey, and share it on Facebook and Twitter. Tag your video with “NHL,” “NHLPA,” and “lockout.” Share it with your local news affiliates.
The Internet has reduced many barriers to conversation between consumers and producers. NHL fans shouldn’t voluntarily mark themselves as healthy scratches at this critical time of the off-season. We should speak up, and speak loudly. This is just as much our sport as it is theirs.