Sports | Left in the cold

In lockout battles. fans find themselves powerless

As professional sports have become multi-billion dollar industries, fans have increasingly had to sit through extended and often acrimonious labour disputes between owners and players. And “sit through” is precisely the right phrase – the realization for all fans is that they are powerless to influence lockouts, strikes, or other labour stoppages.

The NHL recently entered its third lockout since 1993; the MLB cancelled most of the 1994 season and the World Series; the NFL locked out its players in the summer of 2011; the NBA cancelled two months of games in the 2011-2012 season. Through the course of these stoppages, fans have come to learn that their ability to end any of these is minimal. This is because the leagues take fans for granted; they believe that their fanbase will persist no matter how long negotiations last. Sports are a source of entertainment that people have grown up loving and consuming, and the leagues are certain that they have a base of hardcore fans that will keep watching the sport when it returns. This leads to a cognitive dissonance among fans – fans love the sport, but don’t want to support the people who enacted a lockout.

The choices for fans are sparse in situations such as this. The only ways for fans to effect change is monetarily or through extreme public relations pressure. If fans simply stop going to games, watching them on TV, or buying league merchandise, they can make a difference. But it is not easy for any fan that truly loves the sport to simply stop.

While casual fans are often driven away by labour stoppages, it is the dedicated base that leagues know they can build off of. After the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, the NHL had record attendance figures as fans flocked back to watch their favourite teams. The NFL received widespread fanfare after their lockout, and the NBA enjoyed one of its best seasons in terms of attendance and TV-viewership numbers after their lockout ended. The MLB is the only league that struggled after a lockout, as fans were slow to come back; popularity was only ignited four years later by steroid-fuelled home run numbers. (The MLB, it should be noted, has been quick to settle labour disputes since 1994, probably fearing another dip in popularity.)

These trends give me, at least, the unsettling feeling that I am a stooge. I don’t want to support greedy owners (the culprits in most lockouts) or players (who are just as much to blame in certain cases). But it’s not easy to divorce myself from the sports I’ve watched for so long.

Take the NHL, which is close to cancelling its first set of regular season games. The prognosis on the season as a whole is grim – many expect the whole regular season and playoffs to be wiped out. Both the NHL owners and the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) have engaged in fan appeasement, trying to win the public relations battle and earn the support of the fans – but it is mere lip service. They’re both prepared to cancel a season for their economic goals.

And yet, I can’t imagine not watching hockey when it comes back. My cherished memories of NHL seasons past (I get close to tearing up when I watch Buffalo Sabres highlights), and the feeling that watching my favourite teams give me is more powerful than the anger I feel at the current lockout. I just want my hockey back. Ironically, the only way to persuade league administration to bring hockey back, or to not engage in protracted labour disputes, is to not watch hockey when it does return.

The other way that fans can affect the outcome of lockouts is through an onslaught of negative public relations for the league, though this is less effective. Basically, the league and players need to see that continuing the lockout will be worse for the league in the long term than any concessions they may gain by continuing. The NFL and NFL Referee’s Association (NFLRA) were engaged in a lockout this season until the third week of the season, when the performances from replacement referees were so egregiously bad that they degraded the quality of multiple games and controversially decided the outcome of a nationally televised game. With outcry from fans, media, and players, the NFL hastened to come to an agreement with the referees’ union, knowing that the weight of public opinion was too much to bear.

As for the NHL this year, while the outcry among fans has been vociferous, there has not been any substantial movement for an agreement between the NHL and NHLPA in months – the outcry has not been loud enough, not damaging enough, for either side to feel threatened that the long-term future of the league would be damaged by continuing the lockout. The fans may whine and curse commissioner Gary Bettman’s name, but the NHL doesn’t see this acrimony as a true threat to the institution.

Professional sports leagues now treat fans as pawns, a given base that will show up no matter what happens. And because fanhood in itself is nearly unexplainable and deeply ingrained, it’s hard to be anything but a pawn. It’s near impossible to shake off my fanhood after nineteen years. Fanhood has been exploited; we are people to be won over in PR battles but not actually respected.

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