On January 6, after 113 days, 625 missed regular-season games, and countless starts and stops, the National Hockey League ended its third lockout in 19 years.
After the last lockout in 2004-2005, the NHL launched the "My NHL" campaign, which portrayed hockey as a battle and its players as warriors. It also wrote thank you notes on the ice at every arena and increased promotional giveaways. Fans then were almost willing to accept the lockout if it meant the league would be healthier in the long term. This time, fans view the situation as a greedy money grab by owners unwilling to rein in spending.
What the NHL faces isn't simply a PR, marketing, or image problem. This is a trust problem, with fans feeling betrayed more than once in less than a decade. The hardcore fans will probably soon forgive, but the casual fan - the fan responsible for the success of the league during the last 10 years - isn't going to spend money on a league that has little regard for the people keeping it in business.
The NHL needs to give fans details about the agreement, what it means to their favorite teams, and how it makes the game better. At this point, overcommunicate - not with marketing messages, but with contrite honesty.
Create an online space for fans to vent, ask questions that actually get answered, and offer ideas for improving the league. While some of the discussion will be rooted in frustration, the league is opening up an opportunity to learn more about its core fanbase.
The NHL needs to offer fans something they care about. Offer free tickets to kids under the age of 13 - this is going to be your future fanbase. Lower ticket prices across the board. For example, if you lose half the season, make tickets half price.
Being transparent going forward is key. Create content that pulls the veil back on league finances and operations. Now the lockout is over, force teams to open their books. Hire someone to translate information into non-insider language to explain how the league is more viable now, and better yet, how this will ensure another lockout is not going to happen.
Some fans will come back as soon as that first puck is dropped, but to repair relationships with the majority of people, the NHL must go beyond apologies, press conferences, and tweets and show the fans it cares.
Steve Radick is VP/management supervisor, PR, at Cramer-Krasselt.