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So…will the fans come back?

Jan 6, 2013, 3:23 PM EDT

fans

The damage the lockout has caused to the NHL is obvious, with lost revenue and games at the top of the list.

But what about collateral damage?

The NHL will likely face some blow back from its fans — you know, folks that have endured two work stoppages in the last seven years, one that wiped out an entire season and another that dragged on for 113 days.

Surely, some fans will flock back to their favorite teams as though nothing ever happened.

Almost as surely, some will stay away.

Others will have a tough time deciding how to support a league with a penchant for damaging itself.

With that in mind, here are some key points to consider…

Once bitten, twice shy

Fans returned in droves following the 2004-05 lockout and, by last season, the NHL was posting great attendance figures. An April report from the Sports Business Journal claimed teams averaged 17,445 fans per game last season, up 1.8 percent from last season and 2.8 from two seasons ago.

Those are solid numbers, which lead to a big question:

Will fans come back again?

It remains to be seen how negatively this latest work stoppage affects people’s psyches.

The first lockout was met with anger. This one was also met with anger, but also a considerable amount of apathy — and apathy usually doesn’t translate to people spending their money on your particular brand of entertainment. There’s no shortage of ways to spend disposable income, in case you haven’t noticed.

Social Media

One big difference from the ’04-05 lockout and the ’12-13 one was the impact of Facebook and Twitter — especially the latter. Twitter allowed fans to become much more dialed in to the minutiae of labor negotiations, meaning they probably got too close a look at very wealthy men fighting tooth and nail over how to divvy up $3.3 billion.

There’s also the issue of how players came off via social media. Many took to Twitter to show how life was going during the lockout — lives that included Ferraris, money phones, seamstresses at Barneys and sunny vacation spots. (Translation: life was going just fine, thanks.)

To be fair, many players are now using social media platform to express regret to their fans (see: Andrew Ference’s deeply apologetic tweet, and Ryan Miller apologizing for the role players had in the lockout.)

Halted Momentum

The Kings should’ve been building off their first Stanley Cup win in franchise history. While they did sell an “unprecedented” number of season tickets following the Cup victory, it’ll be tough to re-establish a presence in a crowded Los Angeles sports market after being out of the public eye for so long.

In the last few months alone, the Galaxy won the MLS Cup and the Lakers made a series of bold, headline-making personnel decisions. Oh yeah, the Clippers currently have the second-best record in the NBA.

What about Florida? The Panthers enjoyed tremendous success last season, capturing the first Southeast Division banner in franchise history while snapping a 10 year playoff drought.

The team showed noted improvement at the turnstiles — Florida averaged 16,628 in attendance last season, its highest total in seven years — and took the eventual Eastern Conference champion Devils to seven games (and two overtimes) in the opening round.

Think the Panthers would’ve liked to have been playing already?

Giving Back

The NHL does have a history with fan incentives out of a work stoppage. One of the key features from the last lockout was a series of rule changes designed to make the game more exciting and attractive, a plan that won over a lot of casual observers.

This time around, the incentives might be a tad different — more of the grassroots, “we’re sorry” kind of stuff.

Example: Panthers president Michael Yormark said he would announce a ticket promotion Monday that would allow fans to sit with him at all home games this season.

Giveaways and promotions like that will help but, ultimately, it’s the sport itself that will win fans back. That’s something Winnipeg defenseman Ron Hainsey recognized shortly after the new CBA was reached.

“Our focus now,” he said, “is to give fans, whether it’s 48 games or 50, the most exciting season we can.”

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