NBA can learn some things from the NHL

The lockout was over, a new labor deal was in place, and the doors were ready to open.

But one weighty question hung over league and team executives as the NHL prepared to start up again after cancelling the 2004-05 season.

“The major concern from all of our perspectives, I would suggest the players and union as well, was what kind of reaction would we get from the fan base after having had to shut down for a full season,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “What kind of reaction we’d get from the media, and what kind of damage, if any, we had done to our business.”


There was reason to worry. Fans were appalled by a dispute between millionaire players and billionaire owners and vowed they wouldn’t return to watch the boring, clutch-and-grab game that prevailed league-wide. In addition ESPN had declined its option to air NHL games on cable, sending the league to the obscure Outdoor Life Network.

Deliberately conservative, NHL executives projected revenues to be $1.7 billion to $1.8 billion for 2005-06. Thanks to sweeping rule changes that promoted scoring and the adoption of fan-friendly initiatives such as reduced ticket prices, revenues hit about $2.2 billion. They’ve risen every season since, exceeding $2.9 billion for 2010-11.

“I think in retrospect it has to be somewhat surprising in terms of how quickly we were re-embraced by our fans. It’s a testament to them,” Daly said. “It’s also somewhat a testament to the cause and an understanding and acknowledgement of some of the issues we were trying to deal with and needed to deal with.”

The improved quality of hockey probably had more to do with fans’ return than taking sides on the economic issues, but there’s no disputing that the NHL rebounded impressively after its lockout. There’s also no reason the NBA shouldn’t do the same after its scheduled Christmas Day return.

The NBA will begin from a position of greater strength than the NHL did in 2005. The NBA still has lucrative agreements with ESPN/ABC and TNT that will make for constant, inescapable promotion of games and personalities. Also, the NBA’s absence was much shorter, with the season trimmed by only 16 games. The NHL had to rebuild relationships with advertisers and fans. The NBA shouldn’t face that problem.

The NHL’s post-lockout success was boosted by a series of rule changes that included cracking down on obstruction and introducing the gimmicky but dramatic shootout to resolve ties. Many teams cut ticket prices--which have since gone up--and attendance increased for four straight seasons before dipping slightly in 2009-10.

The NBA hasn’t said if teams will slash ticket prices, but there’s precedent for it: After a lockout reduced the 1998-99 season to 50 games, it required teams to make at least 500 seats per game available at $10 each.

Opening on Christmas Day with three showcase games should give the NBA a stellar launch. Most fans are only starting to pay serious attention then, anyway, with college football nearly over and the NFL playoffs a few weeks away.

Asked if he had any advice for the NBA, Daly said he had no doubt it will get up and running rapidly.

“I think dealing with the loss of 16 games is different from having to shut down your business for a full year and having to get back onto the scene and into relevance,” he said.

“I think it’s a lot different and they have experience already and I have full confidence that they know what they’re doing. They’ve proven time and again that they know what they’re doing in terms of running their business.”